Disclaimer: Didn't create 'em, don't own 'em, not makin' money from 'em. Don't sue.
Nathan stood on the landing outside the undertaker's office looking out on the sun as it climbed its way towards ten a.m. He ran a dark hand over his clean-shaven face and saw again in his mind's eye the scarring on the dead man's arms.
Chris, consummate insomniac that he was, had found the body around five that morning. The prone form lying in the alley on the outskirts of their town had nearly escaped Larabee's notice. But his brain sensed there was something out of place when Chris caught the dark shape out of the corner of his eye.
Thinking at first it was a cowhand who hadn't managed to find his way from the saloon back to his own bed, Larabee was fully prepared to nudge the man awake none too kindly. But as he got close it was clear to Chris that nothing he did was going to rouse the man.
The ex-gunslinger didn't bother to check for a pulse. The handful of flies that hovered over the mottled blue-gray patterned flesh told Larabee all he needed to know. He made his way quickly to Nathan's and he really did feel bad for pulling the healer from his bed, especially for such a morbid task. But Chris would have felt a hell of a lot worse if some small child running through that alley had made the disturbing discovery.
The two men quietly and efficiently wrapped the stiff form in some blankets and hauled it back to Nathan's clinic. It wasn't until Jackson looked over the body carefully and noticed the numerous pinpricks in the hollows of both arms of the dead man that he realized how the cowboy had died.
"Opium. Maybe morphine," he stated flatly.
Seeing Chris's wrinkled brow Nathan elaborated with knowledge and guesses. "Them holes, caused by a hypodermic needle. And judgin' from the amount of 'em, he's been doin' it awhile. I hear it's gettin' to be a problem at the work sites where they're layin' track for the railroad. An' it's pretty obvious from this fella that it ain't jus' the Chinese who're usin' it."
Staring at the bruised, puckered marks on the man's arms Chris wondered aloud, "They inject it?"
"Some folks take it in a pill. Most of the Chinese, they smoke it. Read 'bout places in San Francisco, half a city block or more, set up jus' so people can go an' smoke, some stay for days is what the article said."
Still noticing a slight confused look in Chris's eyes, the healer tried to explain further.
"Ya ever had too much Laudanum? Or had a field doc give ya morphine in the War?"
"Laudanum, yeah. Made me real relaxed, didn't care 'bout anything. Sure as hell didn't feel any pain."
"Well, considerin' Laudanum is jus' opium mixed with alcohol you can probably see why someone like this fella, workin' railroad all day, might like to relax with somethin' like that."
Chris shook his head in disbelief, "Think I'll stick with beer."
"But with all them Chinese, who already have it as practically a part of their culture an' what with bein' so far outta town, opium is prob'ly easier to get ahold of than beer."
A thought struck Larabee, "So what's he doin' dead in Four Corners?"
Nathan searched through the man's clothes, now in a pile on the floor. Completing his brief investigation he turned back to his friend.
"No valuables, not that he had any on him to begin with. Might of overdosed at the camp, been robbed, then got dumped where they figure nobody's gonna notice the needle holes, let alone know what they are."
Chris picked up his black short coat from the chair he had dumped it on when he and Nathan brought back the cadaver. "Well, let's hope this is the only one we see. Might sound cold but we've got enough problems in town without havin' to deal with ones comin' from outta town."
He flipped the dark jacket over his shoulder, "Buy ya breakfast?"
"How 'bout if I meet ya in the saloon after I get this fella taken care of?"
Chris nodded and headed out.
Nathan made the obligatory stop at the undertaker's to make sure the man in his clinic would get a proper burial then proceeded to the saloon to meet Chris.
The healer's eyes took a second to adjust from the late morning sun to the shade of the saloon but he quickly noticed Chris, Buck and JD sitting at a table toward the back. Pulling out a chair, Nathan was pleasantly surprised as the bartender lay a plate of grits and eggs before him.
Chris poured his friend a cup of coffee and pushed it across the table. Larabee offered a slight smile through the biscuit he was chewing on and Jackson realized it wasn't any intuitive ability on the bartender's part but rather Chris ordering for him that got the food to the table before he requested it.
JD took a sip of his own coffee and looked to Nathan. "Chris was tellin' us about that fella he found. Hard to believe somebody would actually want to stick a needle in themselves."
"Takes all kinds a' people to make up this world, kid."
JD shot Buck a doubtful look, "You're startin' to sound like Josiah."
"It's better than lookin' like you," Wilmington answered back.
Dunne gave his friend a 'that was stupid' kind of look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what I said," answered the older man enigmatically.
JD shook his head and rolled his eyes, 'And they say I'm a kid, at least I try not to act like one.'
His thoughts were disturbed as the doors of the saloon swung open and ushered in another member of their team.
Vin hooked a chair with his toe and pulled it out, taking the cup of coffee that Chris poured for him as the tracker sat down. The damp tips of Tanner's long hair soaked small spots of water into his cotton shirt. The tracker had afforded himself a hot bath upon return from his three days of self-imposed solitude in the hills and felt better than he had in nearly two weeks.
The short trips to the low-lying mountains helped Vin deal with the edginess that would build in him after spending too long in the confines of their town.
"Miss me?" As he stole a piece of bacon from Chris's plate.
Larabee glanced at Vin, his eye drifting from the now bare spot next to his hash browns up to Tanner. "Were you gone?" But Chris was unable to keep his serious expression in check and a mischievous smile spread across his face.
Vin swallowed the bacon in two bites and grinned back at his friend. "Saw, or guess I should say heard, Josiah on the way in. Good thing Ezra ain't in town, Preacher would end up gettin' shot with all that poundin' he's doin' this mornin'. Where is he, anyway?"
"Ya mean, Ezra?" queried JD. "He went to the train camp last night, sure caught on quick to that Dominoes game." There was a hint of admiration in the young man's voice but after a slight pause it shifted to one of concern. "But he shoulda been back by now."
Vin shrugged, he sure wasn't one to think that not keeping a timetable was a bad thing, "Jus' didn't see Chaucer in the stable, is all."
Chris and Nathan exchanged a look which Vin caught. "Anything happen while I was away?"
Jackson filled the tracker in on the events of the morning.
"Nasty business," stated Vin after the healer concluded his oratory. The five men sat lost in their own thoughts till Chris broke the silence, giving an answer to the unspoken question.
"If nobody sees him by two o'clock, we'll take a ride that direction."
The Previous Night: Tuesday
Ezra sat in the smoke filled tent and smiled. He'd been smiling a lot that night thanks to how well he had been doing.
More than a few heads turned when the elegantly dressed southerner made his wide-eyed entrance into the gambling tent that stood on the fringes of the railroad camp. He hoped he would look as easy of a mark as he intended on playing these poor saps for. 'There may be a language barrier, my friends, but gullibility is the same around the world.'
There were some locals working at the camp who had managed to pick up enough Mandarin or Cantonese to translate the important points between Ezra and the Chinese players. And that was good enough for Standish.
He had arrived at the large canvas tent sometime around seven that night. Having visited once before and done little better that break even, Ezra was eager to challenge the game again. So when a victim-free night of poker in Four Corners presented itself, Standish decided it was a perfect evening to try his hand at something other than cards.
At his table's first break Ezra flipped open his gold pocketwatch and was surprised to see it read ten after nine. 'Thirty-four dollars in two hours, not bad. And the night is still young.'
The liveliness of the makeshift domino parlor charged the gambler with energy. He fed off the loud voices, foreign curses and the snapping clatter of the small bone rectangles. Ezra occasionally thought he caught a whiff of opium smoke mixed with the heavy scent of tobacco that hung in the air. 'If these fools wish to make it easier for me to relieve them of their funds, let them. Makes them as slow as they would be on whiskey and five times more complacent.'
Standish wished the idiot across the table from him had picked up a pipe rather than the bottle he had been pulling off of all night. An oafish looking man with thick features and a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. And the alcohol certainly did not improve upon his uncouth language and behavior.
A second man; his partner, Ezra presumed, sat next to the oaf. His lanky frame belied the meanness that Standish read in his eyes. The gambler had felt those eyes on him for much of the night. But if the man had been aware of the dominoes that Ezra had palmed throughout the evening, he said nothing.
The southerner was confident no one had noticed him keeping his skills sharp. It would take more studied men than what made up this sorry lot to catch Maude Standish's boy.
'Let the pathetic little vermin think what he wants. They always think you're cheating when they're losing.'
The wiry man; Beamish, his partner had called him, shuffled his winnings of the evening into little piles as the players stretched their legs at the break. He fixed Ezra with a look that reminded the gambler of a snake stalking its prey. His smile held no humor. "You've done pretty well tonight, mister."
Ezra decided dumb and lucky was the best way to play this one. He opened his eyes wide and bobbed his head in an agreeing nod. "Definitely the 'fortune of the newborn', as they say around here. You, yourself, sir, look as if you do quite well around a gamin' table."
From their attire it was obvious the two were not camp workers. Their shirts and pants were too clean and the mere fact that they wore vests under their riding coats put them a step above the majority of customers in the tent. But then, it certainly was not unheard of for anyone coming through Four Corners to hear about the fringe gambling parlor and pay it a visit.
Beamish's slurring friend finished rolling a cigarette and lit it as he spoke. "Ain't nothin' compared to the money we're gonna make once we hit 'Frisco and unload them two little packages. One thousand a piece..."
"Shut up, Gilbere. That whiskey is making you more stupid than you already are."
Standish noted with interest Gilbere's reaction, or rather, lack of one. The large man was obviously used to taking abuse from Beamish. Ezra wondered if Gilbere, in turn, took out his frustration on those smaller than himself. Which wouldn't be that difficult considering it looked like most people would probably be smaller than Beamish's partner.
"Well," Gilbere answered curtly, "maybe I'll just go piss some of it out." He rose to his feet and shuffled outside.
Beamish watched his companion step from the tent before he himself stood and crossed to talk with some men at a table toward the back of the canvas parlor.
The other players at Ezra's table rattled back and forth to each other in a mix of Chinese and English. They apparently came to a wondrous conclusion about something because they suddenly gathered what money they had left, smiled, bowed slightly to the southerner and headed out into the night.
Ezra sat alone at the table fanning himself with one hand in an attempt to disperse some of the bluish smoke that clung around him. He wished he could remove his plum colored jacket. But he was by no means eager to find out how this crowd might misinterpret the character of a man who wore not only a Remington strapped to his leg but a Colt Richards conversion in a left-side shoulder holster and a Derringer in a spring-loaded forearm rig. So he opted for taking a step outside.
A glorious wash of cold night air flipped the edges of Ezra's dark hair and cleansed some of the stale smoke from his palate. He pulled his flask from an inside pocket, admiring briefly the way the light from the full moon glinted off its silver surface. Taking a quick pull he allowed himself a moment to close his eyes and savor the warmth of the liquid as it ran down his throat.
But when he opened his eyes something stood before him. A rather short something with straight, brown hair that hung nearly to her waist but mostly in her face. She looked to be around ten. Wore a simple gray smock with a dingy white shirt under it, thick black stockings and a pair of well-worn brown boots.
She pushed a strand of hair from her face and stared at Ezra for a moment with liquid brown eyes and he got the impression she was staring at his clothes. The stare didn't disturb him like it used to. He had actually thought once about trying to coin a phrase that could be associated with that look, since he met with it often enough in the uncultured region he had taken residence in.
However; the gambler felt the young girl was fascinated by his attire, as opposed to the common reaction which seemed to consist mostly of puzzlement. As soon as Standish met his short admirer's gaze she looked away. Focusing instead, around him, to the inside of the tent.
Ezra knelt before her, wondering what in the good Lord's name was this child doing at a Chinese gaming parlor at nine o'clock at night. Not that he was surprised by it; he himself had been in far worse places at her apparent age and much later at night, too. He just sometimes hoped that the things he had experience as a child would not have to be imposed upon other generations.
He smiled a soft, warm smile. "My dear young miss, if you will forgive my forwardness, you look as if you might be in need of some assistance."
The young girl pushed the same piece of hair away from her face, since it had almost immediately returned to its position as soon as she released it. She looked directly into the gambler's jade green eyes before answering and Ezra felt as if she were reading his soul through his body's emerald windows. "I'm looking for someone."
"Well perhaps," he began, as he shrugged his left arm out of the sleeve of his jacket and slipped his shirt garter off, "it would help if you could see."
He pulled his coat back on and held the black band before the young girl, nodding to indicate he meant it as a tieback for her hair.
She didn't answer but turned her head slightly so the southerner might more easily reach the back of her head. With a slow, gentle hand he gathered the brown tresses into a ponytail and secured it with the garter.
'My God, but they're trusting. How could anyone hurt something that unquestioning?'
The southerner smiled again as the child looked at him and spoke. "You have pretty eyes," she stated in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Why, thank you," replied Ezra with an inclination of his head. "But they clearly pale in comparison to the ones I see before me. Now, who might you be lookin' for?"
The young girl's focus was pulled from Ezra's face to something over his shoulder. Without a word she dashed across the yard, weaving her way through the mix of railroad employees to meet the lumbering figure making its way toward the gaming tent. Ezra rose from his crouch and watched her go, curious to see who may be responsible for allowing such a young child to frequent this environment.
Standish let out a heavy sigh laced with disgust. Gilbere. The southerner's stomach tightened as the large man grabbed the girl by her arm and shook her once.
"What the hell you doin' here?"
Ezra's movement was reactionary. A response from a lifetime of similar trials, both lived and observed. He turned sharply away from the scene and took a step into the tent but something held the gambler to the spot as he listened to the child's response. The girl answered immediately, a slight tremor in her voice.
"I..I spilled Jo's medicine. It all spilled out, but she's coughing still, she can't sleep, we have to get her some more." The words tumbled out in one long breath, as if she knew she would only have one chance to communicate why she had come.
If anyone who knew Ezra Standish was watching him at that moment they would not have believed the gambler's physical reaction to the brief exchange. His breath had quickened slightly. A nervous left thumb rubbed at the silver band on his ring finger and the tip of his tongue briefly touched his lower lip several times in succession before he swallowed hard.
A voice in his head fought to suppress the flood of memories. Snippets of mental images, recollections of the rational and irrational fears that came with a child's nightmares. 'This is none of your business, there is nothing you can do,' he told himself.
A slurred, angry voice resurfaced in the background. "Mr. Beamish will get some more in town tomorrow."
"But nothin'! I said we'd get some tomorrow!"
A slight yelp and the sound of shuffling feet moving away from him led Ezra to suspect Gilbere was taking the child back to wherever she had come from.
'If you step in, you will only make it worse. This is none of your business, there is nothing you can do. Nothing you do will make a difference.' The words repeated like a mantra through Ezra's brain. There were times in his own childhood when some misguided soul had attempted to intervene on his behalf. It didn't change anything. Sometimes there would be a reprieve of the treatment inflicted upon him, sometimes it made the situation more unpleasant. But it never stopped anything. Only the faces and locations would be different. The cycle would always repeat itself.
Ezra forced himself to take another step further into the tent, hoping the noise and smoke would drown out the defeatist dialogue in his head. But as he took that step he heard another voice.
'Don't ever run out on me again.'
A simple, terse sentence delivered in an icy tone directly to him. But unlike so many orders given to the southerner in his past, that one had not been a threat. No, that one had been an offer. The offer of a second chance had been presented to Standish when he knew he didn't deserve one.
And since the day he accepted that redemptive opportunity Ezra had done things that had made a difference, he had made things his business and his stepping in had made things better.
Ezra swallowed hard a second time but now determination instigated it, rather than uneasy memories. And as Gilbere drug the girl away from the tent Standish followed at a discreet distance.
A solitary, covered wagon rested some fifty yards away from the gaming tent's tethering area. This was Gilbere's destination. The big man released his hold on the girl and pulled away an edge of canvas at the back of the wagon.
"Now get in there and stay!"
The tiny brunette held her ground. "But all I can get her to take is water, she's nearly thrown up twice."
Ezra's muscles tensed as, from the shadows, he watched Gilbere grab the child by her ponytail.
"You just keep getting stupider!"
The girl twisted away leaving her tormenter empty-handed except for the black shirt garter. Gilbere stared at the small piece of fabric as if he had never seen anything like it in his life.
"Where'd you get this?" he demanded. If she had been associating with other people, God only knew what she might have told them.
The child pressed herself against the back of the wagon, as if hoping that the close proximity of the hard wood might giver her strength.
"Someone gave it to me."
Again, Gilbere grabbed he by the arm, this time leaning low to place his face inches from hers.
"Whaddya mean 'gave it to you.' Who?!"
"Me." Gilbere turned his head to the gambler seconds before Ezra slammed the butt of his Remington against the base of the other's skull. The blow drove the large man to his knees where Standish accommodated the cretin with two more, sending him into unconsciousness.
Ezra reholstered his pistol, pulled his shirt garter from the large, limp hand that had held it and went down on knee before the young girl. "I believe this is yours, miss."
Her deep brown eyes were wide as she remained pressed, unmoving, against the wagon. She stared at Ezra and for the second time that night the gambler felt as if she were sizing him up from the inside, out. Finally, the child took a half step forward but this time, rather than turning just her head she turned her back fully toward Standish and allowed him to place the band back in her hair.
A small hoarse voice called from the wagon's interior. The little girl before Ezra scrambled through an opening in the canvas in response to the tiny cry.
"It's all right, Jo. How're you feeling?"
Ezra pulled back the heavy drape and peered inside the dark wagon, moonlight streaming in allowed him to see the source of the second voice. A second girl, perhaps two years younger that the one who went by the name Savannah. It was a smaller version, however, and while the stick-straight hair was now replaced with long ringlets it still managed to hang in the child's doe-eyed face.
"My throat hurts and..." but she stopped short as her eye fell on the strange male face observing her. "You're not Mr. Gilbere."
The gambler flashed her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Mr. Ezra Standish, at your service, miss. And you are correct, I most certainly am not Mr. Gilbere. However," turning his attention to Savannah, "if you would accept my assistance perhaps we might take leave of this place before he comes to."
Savannah bit her lower lip and cast a glance at her younger sister who lay on the floor of the wagon wrapped in a couple of thin blankets. Ezra could almost hear the older girl's thoughts as she looked back at him. He tried again.
"I'm sure this may seem as if you're going out of the proverbial fryin' pan and into the fire but..." he paused, trying to think of what he could say that would get this girl to trust him. And suddenly an almost foreign thought occurred to him. The truth.
"I will help you. Do you trust me?"
Savannah eyed her sister again but this time took her by the hand. "C'mon, Jo. It'll be fine."
"Good girl," sighed Ezra, helping her from the wagon before bundling Jo and her blankets up in his arms and making a hasty retreat toward the spot where he had tethered Chaucer.
Barely two minutes had passed since Standish had gratefully cracked the butt of his pistol against Gilbere's skull but he sensed it was more than enough time for the huge man to come to. And Ezra was determined not to be around for that.
In the bright moonlight and scattered ground fires Ezra felt uncomfortably exposed. The sight of a finely dressed man with two children in tow was probably not a common one around the improvised gaming hall. The faster they could make their retreat, the better.
Chaucer stood among the collection of other horses, one back leg cocked in a resting position. The sorrel's ears twitched as Ezra approached and Standish called out a soft greeting. With a free hand he loosened the gelding's reins and loaded Jo on the front of the saddle, making sure to keep the small child wrapped tightly in her blankets.
A brief brush of wind cooled the perspiration at the back of Ezra's neck. He shivered slightly at the sensation and it was then that he realized Savannah's position. She had been silent the entire time but the thin arms curled around her body and the occasional tremors that waved through her made it clear how chilled she must have been.
Ezra let out a brief sigh of self-disgust. "My dear child, forgive me." He shrugged out of his plum colored coat and helped slip her into the heavy fabric. The gambler noticed her eyes flit from the Derringer on his forearm to the Colt against his left side.
The response was out of his mouth before his brain could adjust to the fact that he was addressing a ten-year-old. "One can never be too prepared."
The look on the child's face seemed to say she accepted his answer as being a practical one. Ezra couldn't help but be impressed, he smiled briefly at her before taking his place in the saddle behind Jo. Reaching an arm down he pulled Savannah up in one swift move, positioning the young girl in back of him. The southerner wrapped an arm around Jo just as a pair of thin limbs hugged him tightly at the waist. Reining Chaucer toward the trail that led from the camp Ezra spurred the animal forward.
The rhythmic clop of the gelding's hooves against the hard dirt sounded loud enough to be cannon fire as far as Standish was concerned. He endeavored to maintain Chaucer at a fair trot while keeping an eye and ear open for the pursuers he knew would follow. Ezra hadn't realized how tightly he was wound until a sharp cough from Jo made him start.
Ezra unconsciously held the child closer as the cough erupted into a full spasm that racked her entire body. With his arm against Jo's stomach, Ezra could feel the muscles tighten until she tipped forward with dry heaves. He slowed Chaucer to a walk as the young girl's coughing subsided. Standish knew he wouldn't feel relaxed until they reached Four Corners but he worried more about the child's health.
The gambler could just hear his mother's voice. 'Getting' yourself all worked up, and over a child of all things.'
'Yes, mother,' he thought to himself, 'and I left a gaming table while on a streak, as well.'
Another bout of coughing snapped Standish from his smug thoughts. "What say we rest for a moment?" he drawled.
The full moon that hung above the plains lit the area in an incandescent blue. An outcropping of rock just off the trail jutted like the silhouetted bow of a ship and offered the southerner and his recently acquired charges a dark pocket to slip into.
Ezra lowered Savannah to the ground and swung himself from the saddle before pulling Jo from her spot on the horse. Again, Standish was impressed with the older girl's intuitive tendency as Savannah wordlessly took her sister's hand and led her to a granite overhand leaving the gambler to ground tie Chaucer. It was obvious the child was used to watching out for her sibling.
Standish stood by his horse and hesitated for a second before stripping off his forearm rig and tucking it into his saddlebag. 'No benefit to makin' these children edgier than they already are.' He grabbed his canteen and made his way to where the sisters had settled.
As the southerner approached he noticed that Savannah had situated herself with her back against the cold stone and had gathered Jo into the crook of her arm in order to provide the most warmth possible.
"I have some water," Ezra offered in a soft voice. He crouched before the girls and held out his canteen.
"Water doesn't seem to help her much," replied Savannah. Then, casting her eyes down, she added, "I spilled her cough tonic."
"Well, I'm not usually in the habit of doin' this but if you reach into the inside pocket of that jacket there's a flask that may contain a passable substitute."
Ezra had hawked enough 'miracle tonics' and 'cough cures' in his time to know that ninety percent of them were just a mixture of alcohol and opium. A little whiskey wouldn't be any different, maybe just a little smoother going down. This may be the untamed West but as long as he had connections in New York there was no reason why it had to be uncivilized.
Savannah dipped a small hand into the folds of the coat she wore and withdrew Ezra's flask. He resisted the urge to help her unscrew the cap. The southerner was still very aware of the older girl's constant eye on him and didn't wish for her to feel as if he were attempting to become too familiar too quickly.
With a firm grip Savannah undid the top of the silver decanter and offered her sister a sip. Jo swallowed the whiskey with a nasty expression and a shudder but took the second taste her sibling offered her without uttering a word. Then she closed her eyes and leaned against Savannah as her caretaker resealed the flask and slipped it back into its pocket.
The older girl looked seriously at Ezra. "I'm Savannah, this is my sister, Josephine. You can sit by us."
Ezra couldn't prevent a small laugh from escaping; he was amazed at this child's maturity and willingness to take control of her situation. For an instant he could picture that this was what Mary Travis was like as a child. Who were these girls? Who were the men he had taken them from and what right had he to do so? In short, what the hell did he think he was doing?
Standish was wary about relaxing beside the two girls. This was due not only to the thought of the threat that could very well be on their trail but also because of the uneasiness he felt around the children. Ezra didn't know anything about the little creatures and he certainly had not been given any great examples of parental guidance from his mother. Yet, there was a look of complacent trust on Savannah's face that gave credence to Standish's belief that close proximity might actually help comfort the girls.
He checked his watch, twenty-five after ten. "I suppose we could allow ourselves a brief rest," he conceded with a smile.
The older sister slid away from her sibling to make room for the gambler against the rock wall. As Jo shifted, another wave of coughing surfaced but subsided quickly as she nestled against Ezra's right side. He slipped his guns from their respective holsters and lay them on the ground beside his. He would have felt more comfortable keeping them on his lap but Jo had already managed to ease her way into that position.
Standish winced slightly at the child's bout of hoarse coughing and murmured mostly to himself, "We'll get you to Nathan."
"Who's Nathan?" asked Savannah. Ezra thought he detected a hint of suspicion in the girl's voice.
"A friend. Someone who is remarkably capable at helpin' you when you're not feelin' well."
"Singing helps her relax, she doesn't cough when she's relaxed." Savannah had placed herself against Ezra's left side, ignoring the empty, leather hideaway holster.
"Singin'?" repeated Standish, caught off guard by the subtle request.
Savannah just nodded with an 'of course' look on her face. Ezra found himself staring at her for a moment, honestly not sure what he should do. But when his gaze shifted to the closed eyes topped with a furrowed brow of the small form resting against his chest, it was clear. He took a slight breath, recalled one of the few pleasant memories from his own childhood and began to sing a slow, soulful tune.
"Lay your head down, child
Hush, now don't you wake.
The river will deliver you
To the shores of Moultrie Lake."
"Close your eyes now, child
No more to be called waif.
Allow this home to be your own,
My arms shall hold you safe."
"Unto the banks of Moultrie
Your dreams will carry you.
The grass is high, let your soul fly,
And I'll watch over you."
When the gambler finished he looked again to Jo's face and was surprised to see what appeared to be the hint of a smile at the corner of her lips. She stirred slightly in the relative silence of the desert night, so Ezra repeated the lullaby.
"Is Moultrie Lake a real place?" Queried Savannah in a whisper.
"It most certainly is," drawled the southerner in an equally low voice. "Quite possibly the most beautiful spot of fresh water in all of South Carolina. An ideal location for swimmin' or fishin' or, my favorite, reclinin' in solitude."
"Me and Jo never learned to swim and we've never been fishing." It wasn't said with anything other than pure candidness.
"Well, I must introduce you to my friend, Chris. I understand he is the man to be with if one is attemptin' to hunt fish."
This garnered a smile from Savannah. "You don't hunt fish."
"Well, there now, ya see," replied Ezra with a raised eyebrow, "I am most decidedly not the one to take with you on such an expedition."
A solemn expression flitted across the girl's face. "It sounds like you have good friends."
Ezra's countenance matched that of his young companion. "Yes," he answered in a quiet voice, "yes, I suppose I do."
"What's a waif?" Asked Savannah suddenly.
The southerner felt a lump form in his throat as he stuttered a reply. "Well, it's... it's someone who.. maybe..for one reason or another... doesn't quite have a place they can consider to be a..a home."
"Did your mama sing that song to you when you were little?"
'Damn but this child is perceptive.'
A rueful laugh escaped Ezra's lips. "My mother? No." He wet his lower lip with the tip of his tongue in an unconscious nervous gesture.
"As a child, I... occasionally... stayed with a particular cousin of my mother's; she resided near Moultrie Lake. Their housekeeper originated that song for me." He blinked away the small drops of liquid he felt surface in his eyes at the recollection.
"'Ezra's Lullaby' she called it. She said no matter where I went in my life I would always have somethin' to call my own. Although," he continued, pushing down the emotions that came with memory, "it does seem that now I have serenaded it for you and your sister, it should belong to the two of you."
Savannah looked to the form curled against Ezra's chest. "Jo's Lullaby."
The small smile that found its way to the gambler's face dropped away as Chaucer lifted his head and snorted once. Ezra saw his horse's ears pricked forward in the direction of the train camp. Standish didn't hesitate; shaking Jo awake as he stood, Ezra moved quickly to Chaucer, knowing Savannah would be close behind.
The southerner risked a look up the wide trail, hoping to get an idea of what he may be up against. The light of the full moon afforded him enough of a picture. Two riders, moving with determination. Ezra loaded Jo into the saddle first before swinging Savannah up and handing her the quarter horse's reins.
"Stick to this road. There is a town nearby, Chaucer will get you there. Tell anyone who will listen you need to talk to one of the seven. Is that clear?"
Savannah nodded firmly and repeated, "Talk to one of the seven." Ezra didn't have the time to explain but he trusted the girl to accept the command with the trust she had shown in him earlier.
Standish glanced at Jo, full awake now and gripping her sister tightly around the waist. He couldn't see how the small child would manage but the older girl answered Ezra's thoughts.
"We've ridden together before, she'll be alright."
Ezra shifted his focus back to Savannah, looking even smaller engulfed in his plum hued coat, but the set look in the child's eye dispelled his unease. "I'm quite confident of that."
The southerner slapped Chaucer hard on the flank and spurred his horse on with a hiss. He felt a bit more relief as he noted the confident way the young rider dug her heels into the animal's sides and urged it forward.
Ezra scrambled back to where he had left his pistols and canteen. He was sure the two riders had spotted Chaucer beating an escape but he was willing to bet they were unable to identify who may have been on the back of the horse.
Standish checked the ammunition in his weapon out of habit before pressing himself into what he hoped was a decent defensive location against the outcropping of rock. He cursed the bright whiteness of his dress shirt, thinking briefly of the advantage that Larabee's somber attire would have afforded the gambler at that moment.
As the riders came within range Ezra let off two shots from his Remington hoping to land them in the dirt in front of the approaching horses. The sharp double crack echoed across the plains; almost simultaneously, a puff of dirt kicked up to combine with the noise, startling one of the equines.
The roan attempted to dodge away from the mysterious threat, veering awkwardly to the left it stumbled, nearly throwing its rider. The second horseman was able to rein his animal in, pulling the paint around and rapidly retracing the path they had just come down.
Ezra could tell it was Gilbere who had almost fallen and was a little disappointed when the big man regained control of his mount and joined Beamish who, in order to assess their situation, had taken refuge in another patch of rock up the trail opposite of Standish.
The gambler really didn't know what he hoped to achieve by sending the girls on ahead. He just figured he stood a better chance of stopping or, at least, slowing down their pursuers if he weren't running away from them. A shot from the opposite side of the road flew wide to the right of Ezra. He knew they were hoping he would return the favor thus allowing them to pinpoint his position.
Standish remained silent, let them sweat a little. He leaned around his granite barrier for a look. In the moonlight, Ezra glimpsed a slim figure crouched low, running to reach the cover of a second strip of stone that lay directly across the wide trail from the southerner. He couldn't help himself and squeezed off a shot in Beamish's direction.
As the air around him exploded with gunfire Ezra cursed himself for succumbing to the amateurish urge. They had him pinpointed all right.
'Well, it would be rude to disappoint them.'
Ezra holstered the Richards conversion and, gripping his Remington in his right hand, waited for a brief repose of gunfire. When a second of silence became apparent, Standish eased around his shield to offer his own lead-lined opinion of the two men.
He only fired once. Beamish caught the movement of the ghostly white shirt in the moonlight and drew a bead on it. The timing was ironic; Ezra let off a round in Beamish's direction just as the other man's bullet seared across Standish's temple. Spinning to the ground, the gambler lost the grip on his pistol and it bounced uselessly away onto the earth.
Lying curled in the dirt, Ezra reactively brought both hands up to the right side of his face. It felt as if the skin along his temple had been scraped off and replaced with a burning ember. A small voice in the gambler's head actually managed to get his hand to reach for his Colt but it was a futile effort.
A sharp kick to the back of his left thigh sent another wave of pain through Standish's body.
"I told ya it was him! 'Sides, how many other fancy dressed fellas towin' kids you think that Chinaman saw tonight?" Ezra recognized Gilbere's voice and the smell of stale whiskey as the large man knelt next to him to secure the southerner's Colt and gunbelt from the incapacitated gambler. Attempting to wipe away the warm blood that had run into his right eye garnered another kick from Beamish.
Ezra held his tongue against the curse that threatened to gain him more punishment should it escape. Standish blinked to clear his focus and followed the voice. He saw Beamish's .45 Colt first and some ridiculous part of his brain noted that it was very similar to the one Vin carried. However; he most assuredly had never seen the look of pure meanness in Tanner's eyes that reflected in the hazel ones gazing at him now.
Like earlier in the evening, Ezra felt as if he were being watched by a reptile. He didn't even realize he had been staring back in a hypnotized fashion until Gilbere grabbed the southerner by the arm and effortlessly twisted him facedown in the dirt. One of Gilbere's hands wrapped easily around Ezra's wrists, holding them together while the large man bound them with a length of hemp he brought from his saddlebag.
The warm barrel of Beamish's pistol pressing against the back of Standish's knee made it clear the two men wouldn't stand for a struggle. The potentially crippling pressure was removed as Gilbere finished securing the gambler.
"Where are they?" Beamish asked flatly.
'Well, let's see where ignorance gets us.'
Ezra rested his throbbing forehead on the cool dirt. "What are you talkin' about?"
Gilbere's boot caught Standish full on the right side of his ribcage. The air rushed from Ezra's lungs and his body attempted to curl into a defensive position.
'Okay, ignorance hurts.'
Two meaty paws gripped handfuls of the back of the gambler's fine vest and shirt, pulling him slightly off the ground.
"Ya hit me, ya sonofabitch. Ya took those girls. Where are they?"
'How about a mixture of ignorance and truth.'
"The way you were manhandlin' that poor child, of course I did. But I merely escorted them to a warm campfire near the tent, which is where they were when I took my leave."
A hard shake from Gilbere caused Ezra's teeth to snap together and his head to spin a little more, if that were possible.
'Ignorance and truth still hurt, but perhaps a bit less.'
"And that horse of yours just ran off on its own?"
'Let's see how gullible these two really are.'
"He was untethered, you imbecile. Of course he ran away, what with the two of you bearin' down out of the night like a pair of Valkyries. Or did you see a rider on him?"
The seconds of silence that followed Ezra's biting rejoinder made the southerner believe the two men had perhaps really not been able to see the two small shapes clinging to Chaucer's back in the shadows of the moonlight.
The tight grip on his clothes relaxed and Ezra strained to hear the low voices that followed after Beamish and Gilbere stepped away from him.
"I didn't see nobody on that horse."
"And you didn't see anybody right before that guy hit ya, either." Beamish sighed heavily, "It's too dark to try to track 'em anyway and I'm not in the mood to be roaming through the desert in the middle of the night. Load him up on your horse."
"What're we gonna do?"
'Yes, exactly what are you going to do?'
"I got an idea. We'll find out how much he knows."
Gilbere accepted this as an answer and ran to get the horses while Beamish crossed back to Ezra. The man with the .45 grabbed a fistful of the southerner's hair and wrenched Standish over onto his right side. Crouching next to his captive, Beamish stared into the green eyes that met his hazel ones with a vehement defiance.
At that moment Gilbere approached with the horses. Beamish stood to take the reins as his partner pulled Ezra to his feet and guided the bound man onto the back of his tall roan. Gilbere waited for Beamish to saddle up and retrain a gun on the southerner before climbing onto his horse.
As they were about to start Beamish looked to Ezra. "Gilbere isn't above tossing you over the back of that horse like a sack of meal if you try anything. And I'm not above shooting you. So let's make this an easy ride."
Ezra closed his eyes and let his chin sink to his chest. And as he did his best to balance on the back of Gilbere's horse he swore he heard his mother's voice echoing somewhere in his aching head. 'I told you so.'
Standish hadn't been aware of his state of half-consciousness until Gilbere reined his horse to a stop and dismounted. The gambler's head shot up and he pulled instinctively and futilely against the rope that held his wrists behind his back. He recognized the tethering area of the gambling tent just as a pair of large hands pulled him from the roan.
Gauging the position of the pale lunar disk in the dark sky Ezra guessed it was somewhere around midnight. There was still a great noise coming from the domino parlor and the shifting night breeze spread snippets of conversation and the sweet smell of tobacco across the grounds.
Half-pushing/half-dragging the southerner, Gilbere guided him to a familiar wagon. Beamish lowered the tailboard and pulled back the canvas. Ezra realized now would be a most opportune moment to stall for time. He opened him mouth to speak but all that came out was a grunt as Gilbere cracked the butt of a pistol against the side of the southerner's head.
Standish collapsed in stunned heap. He felt Gilbere gather him up and roll him into the back of the wagon. "Returnin' the favor," spat the big man.
"Go get the stuff," Beamish ordered of his partner before climbing up next to Ezra.
The southerner lay curled on his side for he didn't know how long before finally managing to open his eyes. The dancing glow of a lantern cast long shadows around the tiny space; Beamish sat close, .45 still in hand. The gambler hoped his uneasiness didn't reveal itself too much as the other man leaned forward and pressed fingertips against Standish's throat at the pulse points.
Withdrawing his hand, Beamish smiled slightly. "You're kinda tense, son. You need a little something to help you relax. Maybe a little something for that pain, as well."
The gambler started as Gilbere pulled the back canvas of the wagon aside and tossed a small bag to his partner before climbing in. Ezra's attention was locked on the pouch that Beamish held lightly in his hand; otherwise he might have been aware of Gilbere before the man wrapped a massive hand around the gambler's throat and slammed Standish's head against the hard wood floor.
The blackness accented with pinpoints of white light that took over Ezra's vision made him wonder how much a human skull could withstand before it cracked. He was vaguely aware of someone stripping off his boots and binding his ankles together. And he didn't even bother to try to figure out why anyone would want to rip open the right sleeve of his shirt. Until he felt the tight band around his upper arm.
Ezra forced his eyes open, praying that he wouldn't see what he suddenly suspected was in the small pouch that Gilbere had brought back.
'Why do I have to be right all the time?'
When his eyes landed on the hypodermic needle that now took the place of the Colt in Beamish's hand, a pure 'fight or flight' response surged through Standish, but his captors had been ready for it. The southerner attempted to kick out with his bound legs only to have it earn him a sharp kidney punch that made his muscles go slack.
A strong hand grabbed his jaw and prevented Ezra from twisting away as a dry cloth was stuffed in his mouth. But the more they tried to secure him the more Standish fought. Finally, Gilbere, tired of the struggle, pushed the gambler onto his stomach and all but knelt on his prisoner's back.
Ezra felt Beamish's cold hand grip his bound right arm and twist it till the hollow was more easily accessible. Standish had only felt pure, incapacitating fear maybe two, three times in his entire life. But as he lay bound and gagged, near unconsciousness due to hyperventilation, where no one who may have cared knew where he was; Ezra was positive as the needle slid into his arm and drove the opium into his veins -- no fear compared to this.
If the circumstances had been different, Ezra might not have minded a dose of the poppy-derived painkiller. The wound he received as that bullet grazed his temple earlier in the night had been burning fiercely and the ampule of opium certainly helped him forget his pain. Actually, it helped him forget quite a lot.
Like what he was doing sitting up in the back of a wagon with two strangers, and why someone had shot at him. He would liked to have offered his thanks to the men crouched before him as they cut loose the ropes that bound his wrists and ankles and pulled the rag from his mouth. If only he could get his mouth to say the words his brain had compiled.
"You sure it's okay if we cut him loose?"
"Look at him, Gilbere, you think he's gonna be making a mad dash for freedom any time soon? 'Sides, the more relaxed he is, the easier it will be to get answers out of him. I'm going for a cigarette, I'll be back in a bit and we'll try to find out what he knows."
Ezra heard everything Beamish had said and he wondered whom the slim man had been talking about. 'None of my business, anyway.' No... wait... maybe he should make it his business. Wait... that was about something else, someone else. Why couldn't he remember?!
The southerner closed his eyes for what felt like no more than a split second before a hand slapped him lightly on the cheek.
"Hey, Reb? Where are the girls? C'mon, Josephine, Savannah, you know. Where are they?"
Opening his glassy, green eyes Ezra tried to concentrate on what Beamish was saying.
"Savannah?" he repeated back to the floating face, casting his memory back.
"Yeah, where is she?"
"Beautiful city," Standish mumbled, "delightful gardens." He and his mother had spent some time there when he was little. His mother, what had she said? 'I told you so.'
Gilbere rubbed a large hand over the back of his neck, "What the hell is he talkin' about?"
"Jeezus, he's talking about Savannah, Georgia. Stupid, fucking reb. All right, look, I'm not in the mood for this." Beamish checked the time with the watch he had lifted from Ezra. "It's twelve-thirty now, I'll be back around three, it should be wearing off about then."
"We'll give him another one and trade off sleeping, that'll take us to daylight. If we can't find the girls on our own we'll just dose him 'bout every four hours. I figure by seven tomorrow night we can let him come to long enough to know what it feels like to have his body try to get rid of that crap. I'm betting money he knows where our little meal tickets are. And I'm sure he'll take us to 'em crawling on his hands and knees for anything that'll make that feeling go away."
Ezra leaned against the side of the wagon watching with extreme interest the shadows that danced up and down the canvas. The flickering from the lantern that rested a few feet away made even steady objects appear as if they had a life of their own. He was amazed that he had never in his whole life noticed this before.
With the deck of cards he had pulled from Ezra's vest Gilbere played a game of Solitaire with one hand and with his other hand he held a harmonica to his mouth and played an endless collection of songs to himself. Standish thought he should introduce this man to Vin.
At one point it dawned on the southerner how very thirsty he was but before he got the chance to ask for some water his mind recalled something. No, he didn't want to acquaint this man with Mr. Tanner, this man did not know the proper respect that one should show toward a young lady. A dull throbbing in his head made Ezra touch his temple then jerk his hand away as a rough burn heated the right side of his face.
A familiar visage appeared as the canvas of the wagon was pulled back distracting Ezra from his pain and recollections.
" 'Bout damn time." Gilbere growled. "Help me dose this sonofabitch so I can get some sleep."
Ezra watched with curiosity as Beamish readied the syringe with another portion. Something about that action struck the gambler as being very, very wrong and he decided he'd be much happier outside. Standish attempted to rise to his feet but Gilbere's hand on his shoulder forced the southerner back down.
The large man didn't stop, though. Twisting himself around in the tiny space, Gilbere pushed their drugged captive face down and again pressed a knee, and most of his weight, into the gambler's back. Ezra's heart raced as he watched a strip of cloth be wrapped tightly around his right bicep.
He tried to wrestle against the weight bearing down on him but, while the exertion made him sweat and shake, it did nothing to relieve the pressure.
"Hell, this is way easier than last time," laughed Gilbere.
A wave of fear that brought tears to his eyes washed over the southerner. He couldn't prevent a small gasp from escaping his lips. Sickened by the feeling of being so out of control, Ezra closed his eyes tightly but couldn't block out the feeling of the sharp prick in the hollow of his right arm. The weight on his back remained for what seemed like an eternity but at the same time like a fraction of a second. As his muscles relaxed the pressure lifted away and he was propped back up against the wall of the wagon.
But rather than staying there Ezra allowed his body to slide sideways onto his left side and brought his knees up to his chest. He held his left arm tightly against his ribs but let his right drape down so his knuckles brushed his stocking feet, as if by keeping it as far away as possible it would prevent the surreal waking dream from taking hold of him again.
When Ezra had delivered the sharp slap to Chaucer's rump and the large animal started forward Savannah nearly slid from her position on the smooth saddle. But she had ridden for most of her life and it was only a second before she recovered her balance. The young girl dug her heels into the horse's sides and spurred it forward hoping that she'd be able to reach the town Ezra mentioned.
Behind her, Jo clung tightly just as she had whenever the two would ride bareback at their farm. Chaucer's hooves pounded hard into the dirt of the narrow road, Savannah knew the poor animal wouldn't be able to keep this pace up but the idea of what lay behind them made her try to edge the Quarter horse on.
However, it wasn't the horse that eventually made her stop. Jo's body began to shake with the familiar cough that had haunted the small girl for the past three days. Worried that her sister may not be able to maintain the grip that kept the two of them moving as one rider, Savannah slowed Chaucer, reining him to a trot and finally, a walk.
Jo's coughing had subsided but Savannah didn't want to rest. She allowed the sorrel to continue at a walk, giving her the opportunity to dip into the pocket of the oversized jacket she wore and retrieve Ezra's flask. Undoing the cap she twisted around and balanced the decanter while Jo took a swallow that sent a shiver through her tiny body. Savannah replaced the top and made sure to bury the flask deep in its pocket to keep it safe.
The moonlit plains were peacefully quiet as the two girls rode in silence. Savannah could feel Jo's body weigh heavier against her back, signaling the younger girl was falling asleep. "What say we rest for a moment?"
She said it more for her own benefit than her sister's. Repeating the words that Ezra had spoken earlier made her feel as if the handsomely dressed gentleman was still with them. She had always been good at seeing people. That's what her grandmother had called it. Being able to look at someone straight in the eyes and get a feeling for what kind of person they were.
She trusted Ezra and he had been nicer to her and Jo than anyone had been in months. And now who knew what kind of trouble he was in because of it.
Savannah found a spot off the trail and pulled Chaucer to a stop. A large rock formation made it easy for her to dismount and pull Jo down as well. Wrapping the large horse's reins around the trunk of a small, dying tree the older girl woke her sister up enough so she could relieve herself in the night shadows of some rocks a little distance away.
When Jo rejoined her sibling her sleepy eyes showed that the younger girl wasn't very aware of her surroundings. Savannah hoped the three runaways couldn't be spotted from the road but realized she had little choice when she saw that Jo had already curled herself into a blanket-wrapped ball against the rocks and fallen asleep. Savannah maneuvered herself as closely as she could beside her sister and drifted into unconsciousness, lightly fingering the shirt garter gift that held back her hair.
Savannah awoke to a fit of Jo's coughing. It took the older girl a moment to get her bearings as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Memories of the events over the past twelve hours came rushing back to her and she bolted upright.
How long had they been asleep? Chaucer was still there, but where was Ezra? Town. They had to get to the town and talk to one of the seven. Savannah had no idea what that meant but Ezra had seemed so adamant about it.
She shook Jo fully awake and took her again to a spot where they could both relieve themselves after their too short sleep. The girls moved in companionable silence as they used the large rock to boost themselves onto Chaucer's back.
Except for the times spent in imaginative play, the siblings rarely felt the need to talk when it was just the two of them. Maybe because they always seemed to know what the other was thinking. That was something else their grandmother had said. They shared a bond like they were a set of twins. 'Don't ever lose that.' That's what grandmother used to say.
Savannah felt awful when she thought of the hours that Chaucer had had to spend still secured into his tack and without water. She hoped he would be all right until they could get to town and get help. She urged him forward with a clicking sound. 'Please let us be close to help.'
Standish lay on his side studying the lines that braided their way across the palm of his right hand. He had traced and retraced every possible path and somehow they never seemed to reach a destination. Nearby, someone was snoring. What was Buck doing in his room? No, he wasn't in his room. Savannah. He must be in Savannah. Mother's working the Count of Monte Cristo game. What was Buck doing in Savannah? Why couldn't he concentrate? Maybe if he closed his eyes for a little while that would help him remember.
A vivid picture of watching a needle stab into his flesh made Standish jerk suddenly. 'It's this place, have to leave this place.' He attempted to raise himself but realized he couldn't move his hands. He stared at the rope binding them for nearly two minutes until another thought pulled him away, he had tried to lick his lips and discovered there was a gag in his mouth. When did that happen?
Ezra's confusion about his predicament was shoved from his brain as he noticed how much brighter it was in the wagon. That's where he was, the wagon. His eyes widened as he remembered this was a very bad place to be. Maybe the two men next to him could help.
They were talking. He tried to focus on the words.
"Wake up, it's seven-thirty. We need to find the girls." Beamish prodded Gilbere with the tip of a boot. Gilbere shifted in the cramped quarters and forced himself awake. His partner shoved a cup of coffee in the larger man's hands.
"Whadda we do with him?"
"I got him bound up again, we'll dose him once more and leave him back here. Hopefully, we'll be able to figure out if he was telling the truth about leaving the girls in camp or if that horse of his didn't just bolt."
Gilbere leaned over to Ezra and cupped the smaller man's chin in one hand. "Hear that, Reb? More rest for the weary. Let's hope ya don't end up like that poor sonofabitch they carried outta the smoke tent last night. Deader than a doornail."
The large man thought this was hilarious and was still laughing as he bore his weight down on Standish to allow his partner an easy target for the needle he held his hand.
As they walked along the wide dirt trail Savannah held Chaucer's reins in one hand and gripped her little sister's hand with the other. The sorrel had skipped once and started to limp shortly after the girls had left the rocky area where they had spent the night.
Savannah immediately pulled him up and slid down from her spot in the saddle. She tried to get the Quarter horse to allow her to inspect the foot he had begun favoring but he was having none of it. She looked at her sister, sitting calmly on the back of the horse still maintaining one blanket around her shoulders, and sighed heavily.
Josephine blinked twice at her older sibling and returned a smaller version of the sigh before easing herself into her sister's waiting arms and down to the ground. As Jo stood next to Savannah a loud grumble emanated from the younger girl's stomach. She didn't bother to look to the other brunette for a solution. She knew that if there were any food to be had her sister would have seen to it that Jo had received a portion.
But that didn't make Savannah feel any less awful for not being able to provide for the younger girl. She should have remembered to grab the canteen before Ezra made them ride away or, for that matter, she should have gathered some of the jerky from the wagon before they left. She had to do better than that now. Jo depended on her.
Her eyes landed on the saddlebags; well, maybe she could.
"Let's see what we can find."
Savannah made a step with her hands for Jo and hiked the girl up so she was able to balance against Chaucer while searching one side of the bags. The first thing Jo's hand touched was Ezra's forearm rig, the Derringer still locked in place. She pulled it out enough so Savannah could see it.
The older girl contemplated it for a second, pursing her lips, then nodded, "Just the pistol, though."
Jo pulled the tiny gun from its spring-loaded spot and dropped it into a small square pocket on the front of her jumper. She searched through the rest of that side of the bag before having her sister boost her again to go through the opposite ouch; finally getting lucky with some dried apples wrapped heavily in wax paper.
Savannah took the pistol from her sister, inspecting it briefly and thinking how much smaller it was than the one Mr. Gilbere had taught her to shoot that night he had had too much whiskey. But she slipped it into the pocket of her own smock and took a few pieces of the dried fruit before letting her sister munch on the remainder.
With the limping animal trailing next to them and the late morning sun climbing in the sky, the two girls continued on their way.
Beamish stood next to the wagon and checked the gold pocketwatch he had recently acquired. Nine-thirty. Nearly two hours spent searching the camp and the surrounding area for those damn kids and nothing. They're two little girls, for Pete's sake, there's no way they could have gotten very far, horse or not. He finished off the jerky he had pulled from the hardtack box and ran a hand through his dirty blonde hair.
Gilbere had just gotten back from dragging that sorry, son-of-a-bitch, reb to the privy. The big idiot was the reason they were in this mess in the first place, let him take care of it. But, God knows how Gilbere was able to manage their prisoner. They'd pumped him so full of opi it was a wonder the poor bastard could stand, let alone walk. 'Strong constitution,' the thin man thought with a smirk, 'for all the good it's gonna do him.'
Beamish's partner hopped from the wagon, complaining.
"Promise me I get to shoot that stubborn ass as soon as we find those girls. Ya know she had one of them shirt garters of his in her hair? I can tell 'cause he's only got one and it's jus' like the one I was looking at right before he snuck up on me."
Beamish didn't even bother to look at his companion. "Yeah, I know. You told me. Twice already. You get him secured? I need something real to eat."
"Wrapped up like a Christmas package," Gilbere answered with a grin. "And I know for a fact they got eggs and ham up at that tent. We can kill a couple hours and maybe if we get real lucky... I'll get to kill him."
The wooden saloon chair creaked a small protest as Josiah leaned back and stretched. He'd passed Vin exiting their second home as he, himself, headed in for a late breakfast. The tracker had nodded a hello in response to Sanchez's greeting but Josiah thought his friend looked a little more distant than usual.
"Hey, Josiah." JD offered a slight wave as the preacher requested from the bartender a large breakfast before joining his other four companions at the table in the back.
"A fine morning to you all."
"Better for us than for some others," retorted the youngest member of their group.
A guilty smile played on Sanchez's lips. "Ah yes, I apologize for the curses which I am sure streamed from Ezra's lips at my roof work this morning."
"Ezra isn't even in town, I'm talkin' about the dead guy Chris found."
Josiah glanced in Larabee's direction but got no response from their leader. Like Vin, he seemed preoccupied with other thoughts. It was Nathan who spoke up, relating the tale again for the preacher. Jackson finished his account and helped himself to a cup of coffee from the fresh pot the bartender brought with Josiah's breakfast.
The preacher shook his head sadly, "I often wonder if people who use that type of an escape find what they're looking for while they're in the throes of their retreat or find it after that escape beats them."
The silence that followed the somber statement was broken by the loud, familiar sounds of a stage pulling to a stop in the street out front.
Josiah swallowed the piece of toast he was chewing and looked over his shoulder to the doors of the saloon.
"I may have driven Ezra away with my noise but I'm sure that is one commotion that will have him back in our presence shortly."
"We ain't sure he was even here this mornin' to hear your racket, Josiah," responded Buck. "He left for the gamin' tent at the railroad camp last night, haven't seen hide nor hair of him yet this mornin'."
Josiah raised an eyebrow, "He seemed rather enthusiastic about meeting the stage coming in today. Pretty certain he was a little less than happy with his lack of competitors last night. Figured for sure he'd be out there already from the way he was talking."
Without a word or a glance to his friends Chris pushed back his chair and left the room.
JD stared at the swinging bat wing doors and finally voiced the question that Buck could see on his young partner's face. "What was that about?"
Wilmington shrugged it off, "Aw, he prob'ly just thought of somethin' he needed to do." But Buck recognized the look on Larabee's face and was pretty sure they would be heading out toward that gaming tent before two o'clock ever got the chance to roll around.
Chris strode to the stable, hoping to see Chaucer brushed and blanketed and in his stall but his lips pressed tight together when the only sight to greet him was Vin saddling Peso.
Vin didn't look up, "Thinkin' I might take a ride."
Larabee rested his hand on Peso's flank, absentmindedly petting the large animal. "Didn't ya just get back from one?"
Vin grabbed his canteen to fill it but paused to look at the blond man before him. "I got a feelin', Chris," he said in a voice even softer than his usual low tone. "Can't explain it, but can't seem to shake it neither." He continued on his way to the pump, "I'm gonna head out there."
"I must be hanging around you too much," replied Larabee, " 'cause I got the same feeling."
Vin returned from getting water and Chris wasn't surprised to see he had four shadows with him.
"I guess everybody's been hangin' around me too much," Vin commented as he began to check the ammunition of his weapons.
Larabee had to smile. To look at the group of gunslingers standing before him no one would ever suspect they might get so concerned over nothing more than a nagging thought, a curious uncertainty. And though they might not admit it out loud the look on each one of their faces couldn't be more obvious. If there was a question about the condition of one of their team, God help anyone who stood in their way.
"Josiah, why don't you stay here, in case he shows."
The preacher nodded his head but remained in the stable till his companions finished saddling their horses and checking their own variety of guns.
As the five men prepared to head out Chris looked back to Sanchez, "See if you can find some good whiskey, Josiah. One way or another, Ezra's gonna owe us a drink."
" 'Drink', nothin'," Buck called out, "I want the whole damn bottle for this."
"You get anything outta him yet?" Gilbere finished a post-breakfast cigarette and pushed the wagon's back canvas out of the way to face his partner.
"He was with them but damned if I can figure out where they went. The last dose is starting to wear off. It's about eleven-thirty now, let's let him come around a little. See if we can't get something that makes sense out of him."
Ezra was dead. That had to be what this was. Either dead and in hell or on the worst drunk bender since those four days in Baton Rouge. One minute the sound of the man's voice would be far away, as if shouting at him through a tunnel. Then everything would be normal and that man would be asking him about the girls.
At one point he must have said something that irritated the man greatly because rather that asking another question he delivered a slap across the gambler's right temple, releasing a shock of pain and causing the southerner's eyes to water.
Ezra squinted against the harsh light that poured in as the man left him by himself. This was wrong, he wasn't supposed to be here. He should go home. If only he could remember how to get there. Four Corners, in South Carolina. Louisiana? Was it Georgia?
His mother would know, but he was pretty sure she wouldn't be much help. But Buck had been here earlier, that meant the others had to be here too. God, he hoped they weren't feeling the same way he was. His head was throbbing and although he could see the sun's light through the heavy canvas covering the wagon, Ezra began to shiver.
The five peacekeepers rode in silence. Vin had taken the lead, Chris was just off his right flank, JD and Nathan kept pace with each other behind them and Buck brought up the rear. The sun was close to straight up.
And when JD first saw the figures in the distance on the side of the road he wasn't sure if they were real or just the wavy afternoon heat playing tricks on him. It must have been playing tricks on Vin too because the tracker, having stopped, had his glass out and was taking a closer look at the shapes.
Tanner handed his telescope to Chris who, after taking a glance for himself, passed the metal tube back to his partner with a puzzled look on his face and urged his horse forward. As the five got closer it was apparent that neither the heat nor their minds twisted what they saw.
Two girls, about ten and eight, each with long brown hair and sun-reddened faces standing beside a tired-looking sorrel. The older girl, draped in a fancy, deep purple jacket had placed herself in front of the smaller child but they both stood so the Quarter horse's chest blocked them slightly from the approaching group.
"I recognize that horse," Vin observed as the regulators pulled their mounts to a stop about ten feet from the trio.
"I recognize that jacket," noted Jackson, his tone laced with curiosity.
And, as the older child slipped a small Derringer from the pocket of her jumper and pointed it with both hands at the men, Chris cocked his head and added, "I recognize that gun."
"Whoa, hold up there, little lady," blurted Buck, "ya know, that don't look like a toy. You're might liable to hurt somebody."
The young girl stared at Wilmington for several seconds before replying. "One can never be too prepared."
Larabee's was the only mouth that didn't drop open.
Nathan managed to regain his voice first, "I don' suppose either of you ladies would happen to have met a man goes by the name a' Ezra, lately?"
The girl didn't respond, she just kept the pistol firm in her grip and gazed at the healer the same way she had at Buck.
JD still wasn't sure that what he was seeing was real. "Dang, Chris, she must know him. Look at that poker face."
The child's arms dropped suddenly, "Where's Chris?"
Larabee tipped the black hat off his head and let it hang down his back. "I'm Chris."
The small brunette scanned the others, "Nathan?"
The men exchanged baffled glances as Jackson nodded, "That's me. What's this about?"
"You're his friends, you have to help him."
Chris and Vin had wordlessly moved at the same time. Slowly dismounting and walking closer to the young girls.
Larabee crouched before the older brunette and held out his hand. She fixed him with a gaze and studied his facial features before passing the Derringer to him.
He pocketed it smoothly, never taking his eyes from her face, "You're right, Ezra is our friend and it sure would help us a lot if you could tell us what you know about him or where he might be."
"I don't know where he is. He made us leave him, back there." She pointed up the trail, pushing away the extra folds of sleeve fabric to expose her hand.
Vin shifted impatiently behind him but Chris continued with a calm voice. "Can you show us?"
Savannah nodded just as a small hiccup from Jo brought on a minor attack of coughing from the young girl. Nathan, having dismounted like the others, passed the reins of his horse to JD and crossed to the brunette.
"That don't sound like it feels too good."
Savannah spoke up for her sister. "She's been sick about a week, everything else passed but then the cough came on. But you're getting better each day, aren't ya?"
Jo nodded in agreement but couldn't prevent a couple more rough gasps from escaping her lips.
Chris exhaled heavily and ran a hand across his chin. Looking over his shoulder, Larabee caught JD's eye and the young man came forward, leaving Buck in charge of all the horses. "This here is JD. Now, I'd like to get your friend, here, back to town 'cause she sounds like she could do with some rest. Would it be alright if he escorted her back?"
"She's not my friend," replied Savannah bluntly, "she's my sister." The older girl's eyes flitted to JD for barely two seconds before turning to the child next to her. "You go with him, Jo, he's okay."
Then, turning back to Dunne, "JD, this is Josephine. She's quiet, so don't expect her to talk much. And if her coughing gets too bad, giver her a couple sips of this, it helps." She reached into the inside pocket of the oversized coat and pulled out the flask, passing it to a speechless JD.
Nathan shook his head and mumbled, "Only Ezra."
JD took the flask, stuttering gratitude. "Uh, thank you, Miss..."
"I'm Savannah. And you have to take him with you, too." She lay a hand on Chaucer's chest, "he's limping but he won't let me see why."
JD was still stunned at the efficient little child before him. Chris, however, just smiled as he stood and gathered up the sorrel's reins. "You heard the lady, JD. Make sure Chaucer gets stabled and looked after. And I'm sure Mary would enjoy Josephine's company."
"Uh, yeah, Chris. I'll, uh, I'll do that." Dunned held out his hand to Jo who glanced at her sister for one more nod of reassurance before accepting the offer. Buck waited until JD was settled on his horse then lifted Jo up to sit in front of his friend. Chris handed Chaucer's reins to Dunne and touched two fingers to his hat as the boy led the horse away.
Buck couldn't help himself and called out to his friend, "Remember, kid, she's spent time with Ezra, best not play any cards with her."
The remaining four men mounted up, Savannah sharing Nathan's saddle.
Chris looked to the young girl, "Can you show us the spot you were tellin' us about?"
The brunette nodded, "It's that way." Pointing again up the road.
Larabee resettled his dusty black hat on his head and exchanged glances with Vin, letting the tracker take the lead once more. "Let's go see what we can find."
Ezra attempted to focus on Beamish but his normally bright green eyes, now dull and glassy, didn't seem up to the task. At some point over the last eternity, someone must have stabbed something very sharp into the gambler's brain because the pain lancing through his skull made him almost forget about the queasy feeling building in his stomach.
"I don't like what you're implyin' and I never met those girls until two minutes ago." Of course, what Ezra really meant by 'met' as he argued with the Virginia ship builder was that he hadn't officially been introduced to the man's debutante daughters in a socially acceptable situation until two minutes ago. The two hours spent in the stables with them, however, had been another matter all together.
But the gambler's slurred, defensive reply did nothing to alleviate the man's questions about where the girls were. Instead, the man and one of the lovely ladies' betrothed trussed him up like a calf for branding.
Wait... this wasn't right. He had ridden out of there. He'd managed to convince them it was the household's Spanish pastry chef who had been with those girls in the hayloft. God, it was cold. So why did he feel like he was sweating?
"What the hell was he talkin' about this time?" They'd just finished tying and gagging the obstinate southerner and Gilbere stood next to his partner, rolling another cigarette.
"I don't know, I don't care either. Just the fact that he's forming sentences means he'll be thinking a little straighter soon. We'll ride outta camp a little ways, head up to the spot where we found him. Figure we can be back in a half hour easy, he oughtta be that much more coherent."
Gilbere touched a match to the tobacco filled twist of paper he held between his lips. "What if we bring him with us? Maybe ridin' him out to that spot where we found him would help his recollection some."
Beamish was genuinely surprised, not only had his partner had an idea, it was a good one. "Yeah, go rein up one of the wagon horses, I'll see to him." Indicating with a motion of his head to the back of the wagon.
In the time it took Gilbere to get a bridle on one of the sturdy gray animals they used for pulling and return to the wagon Beamish had managed to maneuver the gambler from his small prison. And although the gag and ankle restraints were gone, the continuous feed of opium and the rope that bound his wrists in front of his body were more than enough to keep Ezra complacent as they loaded him onto the bare back of the horse.
'How good to be outside.' Standish watched with detached interest as Beamish took the reins of the southerner's horse and the small party headed out.
Ezra found himself wishing, however that the newly acquired achy feeling that infested his skin would go away so that he might be able to more enjoy the bright sun. If only it would warm up some.
His body instinctively struggled to maintain balance on the horse as his brain tried to figure out why he couldn't turn his head fast enough to spot what those little movements were that he kept catching out of the corner of his eye. 'Nothin' serious, I'm sure.'
"Ezra says you're remarkable caba-capable at helping people when they don't feel well."
Nathan cocked his head at the young girl he shared his saddle with and exchanged glances with Chris and Buck who had overheard the comment.
"He said that?" Nathan couldn't hide the surprise in his voice.
Savannah nodded seriously and looked to the rider in black next to them. "And he said Chris was the man to take fishing."
Buck let out a small laugh, "Well, what else did he say?"
"That we should talk to one of the seven." She stared at Chris with her deep brown eyes, "That's you all, isn't it?"
Larabee responded only with a slight nod.
"But there's only five."
Chris and Nathan again looked at each other, intrigued by the young girl. The ex-gunslinger replied to her statement.
"On of our friends is still back in town..."
"And Ezra's the seventh," Savannah stated assuredly.
"Did he tell you that?" Inquired Nathan.
"No," she craned her head around to look at the healer, "I could just tell."
She focused again on the trail, "I think up here was where we were." The brunette pointed to the large clump of rocks that jutted from the side of the road.
Vin dismounted, handing his reins to Buck and made his way around the boulders. Chris watched attentively, not sure he really wanted to know what the tracker might discover.
"He was here alright." Tanner emerged from the stone pocket with a canteen in one hand and Ezra's Remington in the other. He hung the canteen next to his own and tucked the pistol into his saddlebag before mounting.
He leveled a gaze a Chris, "Judgin' from the marks in the dirt, there looked to be a struggle. Some blood-not a whole lot though-maybe ten hours old. Tough to tell with the ants and the dew."
Larabee's jaw tightened at the news but he forced himself to relax as he turned to Savannah.
"What's going on? What were you doing out here?"
"Yesterday morning we stopped in camp. But last night, Mr. Gilbere got mad at me 'cause I said we needed more cough tonic for Jo. I don't think Ezra liked the way he was acting; he knocked Mr. Gilbere down and said he would help Jo and me."
"Who's Mr. Gilbere?"
"Him and Mr. Beamish are bringin' us to San Francisco to live."
Nathan offered the girl a drink of water from his canteen. "Where's your parents?"
The girl took several seconds to down some of the liquid before answering. "Mama passed a few months back. Doctor said it was 'cause of a bad liver." Then, in a lower tone, "I don't eat liver anymore."
"Da said Mr. Gilbere and Mr. Beamish would take us to San Francisco and we could live in a big house there."
Jackson was more than a little suspicious at the vague facts the girl was giving them. "Where's your Da?"
"He's back in Allentown. We used to live in Ohio but we moved after mama's sickness. Then it was just me an' Jo an' Da. But Da would drink, kinda like Mr. Gilbere, only more. So Dan said he would join us after Mr. Beamish and Mr. Gilbere got me an' Jo set up with a family in San Francisco. They can't have any kids of their own."
Chris shifted in his saddle, exchanging looks with his companions. "Did your Da pay Mr. Beamish and Mr. Gilbere to see you and your sister out here?"
Savannah nodded, "Yep, the night we left he gave Mr. Beamish some money. And I've heard Mr. Gilbere say they'll get two thousand more when we get to our new home."
Buck's mouth fell open. "Two thousand?"
The young girl nodded matter-of-factly, "He talks a lot when he drinks."
Chris tipped his hat back from his eyes, "You said Ezra made you leave him. What was that about?"
Savannah cast her eyes downward as if she had failed at something. "We stopped to rest. But then there were some horses coming. He told us to follow the road till we got to a town and tell anyone who would listen that we needed to talk to one of the seven."
Vin interrupted, reaching for his glass, "Riders comin'." He spotted the obvious dust cloud on the stretch of road coming from the direction of the camp and the uneasy feeling that had clung to the tracker all morning weighed a little heavier on him.
Chris focused on the young girl sitting with Nathan. "Savannah, I want you to get behind those rocks, stay there and don't make a sound."
Jackson helped the child from his horse as she scrambled to obey Larabee's orders.
Peering through his telescope, Vin gave the others an assessment, "Three, one bareback." A hint of confusion entered his tone, "But the lead rider's holdin' the-," he cut himself off as he got a good look at the half-slumped form on the unsaddled gray. "Damn. It's him."
The tracker offered the glass to Chris who took in the view of the approaching figures for himself before passing the lens back to Vin. Larabee wasn't sure which was stronger, the feeling of relief to see the missing member of his team or the concern over the curious condition he seemed to be in.
Chris dismounted, giving instructions to the others, "Nathan, Buck, see how much of this road you can block without looking obvious. Everybody relax till we get a handle on the situation."
Though Beamish was the first to notice the group in the wide trail ahead it was Gilbere who spoke first.
"What the hell ya think that is?"
"Relax, it's nothing. They're probably on their way to the camp."
"But that's the spot. That's where we found him. Why are they stopped there? Jeezus, Beam, what if the girls really were on that horse?"
Beamish turned sharply on his partner, "Just shut up and relax! I'll do the talking. The last thing I need is for you to go and do something stupid just because you're wound tighter than a new bride."
Larabee waited for the riders to get close before he lifted the front left hoof of his horse and pretended to inspect it.
The three other regulators did their best to keep neutral expressions but each of them had a firm hand resting on their weapons as they were finally able to see, up close, Ezra's condition. It was clear that his hands were tied and the slump of his head and shoulders as he leaned forward toward the neck of the big gray conveyed the southerner's lack of coherence.
The slim rider held the reins of Standish's horse looked much calmer than his partner but Chris could see the blonde man's eyes trying to take in any potential threat that the hard-looking crew before them might pose.
"Bit of trouble with your horse?" He called to Larabee as they slowed. Beamish hoped it didn't appear that they were stopping because he wasn't sure how to get around the obstacles in their path.
Chris released his horse's foot and casually pulled back the edge of his coat, placing his hand on the butt of his pistol. "Nothing serious. Looks like you've had a bit of trouble though."
Larabee nodded toward the bound figure of his friend and did his best to control the anger that he felt well up inside of him.
"Nothing serious," Beamish replied with a humorless smile, never taking his eyes from the man in black. "We're taking him to Four Corners for lock down. Wanted by the law, for kidnapping. Two little girls. Caught up with him just yesterday at that gambling camp but we can't find the children. Don't suppose you all saw anything that could help us? Couple of dark-haired sisters. One's ten, the other eight."
Buck wanted nothing more than to drag the bastard from the Pinto he was on and beat some truth out of the little reptile. Wilmington had strung together enough tales in his time to know, without a doubt, that this son of a bitch was making it up as he went along.
"Whaddya say, Chris? Vin, Nathan? We can probably help ya, all right. Ya see, we are the law in Four Corners."
That was when Gilbere broke. For such a large lumbering man he was remarkably quick on the draw; unfortunately for him, he wasn't that accurate. Whipping his Smith and Wesson up, he took aim at the one who had admitted to being a peacekeeper. His shot at Buck missed completely but the two rounds from Chris that struck Gilbere in the chest were dead on.
The big man topple sideways off his horse, his heart attempting to push blood through the large muscle just twice more before he hit the ground.
Beamish was neither quick nor accurate; and, if he had had time to realize it, was just as wound up as Gilbere had been. As soon as he caught his partner's movement from the corner of his eye, the thin man decided to back Gilbere's play.
It was a disturbingly accurate bullet fired by Nathan that created the dime-sized hole in Beamish's forehead and blew out a large portion of the back of his skull. Buck's shot to the man's upper chest just helped to drive him off the back of horse to the dirt.
It was over before the echoes of the gunfire faded from the air. And to the amazement of the other four men, Standish's only movement had been to slump completely forward onto the neck of his horse.
Chris was at the gambler's side, pulling him from the gray before Nathan and Buck could even slide from their saddles. Vin didn't join the other three until he double checked the lifelessness of the two men on the ground and collected their weapons.
Nathan helped Chris ease Ezra to the ground where the healer could cut loose his bonds and check the gambler for injuries. The first thing they noticed, now that they could see his face, was the amount of dried blood still matted in the short, dark hair and streaked across Standish's brow and cheekbone.
The spot where the bullet grazed the southerner was red and puffy, surrounded by the purplish-blue of a growing bruise.
Larabee could feel the occasional, slight tremors that rattled through Standish as he cradled his friend's upper body against his own.
"Ezra? Can you hear me?"
The usually observant green eyes seemed foggy and distant as they tried to focus on the source of the voice.
"Mr. Larabee." Then, drifting to the other worried faces around him. "Buck, I knew you were here."
Wilmington shot a glance to Nathan, hoping for an explanation to the gambler's sluggish behavior. But the healer only returned Buck's confused look.
"Ezra?" A small voice momentarily pulled the peacekeepers' attention from their friend. Savannah had crept from her hiding spot and approached the concerned group.
Buck rose to intercept her, not sure what her reaction would be, especially since they didn't have any answers to give her when she started asking questions.
"What's wrong with him?"
"We're not quite sure, darlin', but Nathan's checkin' him out right now."
A shocked whisper from the healer startled them all. "Sweet Mother. Chris, look." Nathan had brushed aside of strip of torn shirtsleeve and his eyes fell on the hollow of the pale arm before him. "Needle holes, three that I can see..."
Jackson gripped Ezra's bicep tighter in order to inspect the arm and was stunned as a sharp kick brushed across his ribs sending him tumbling backwards into the dirt.
"NO! Not again!" The southerner yelled through gritted teeth. He attempted to pull himself away from Chris, swinging wildly with closed fists at the blurry figures around him.
Vin tried to close in to get the gambler under control but Larabee waved him away. "Back off! Everybody, back off!"
Positioned behind Ezra, Chris avoided any effects of the violent display.
"Ezra!" Larabee said the gambler's name once sharply to try to get his attention, then continued in a lower, soothing voice. "Shhh. Ezra, it's Chris. Can you look at me? C'mon, relax, you know me. Look at me."
Standish responded to the calming tone and relaxed slightly back into Larabee's arms, again trying to focus on the face closest to him.
"No more," he whispered, breathing heavily from the brief, intense exertion.
"No," Chris answered reassuringly, "no more."
The two words that softly escaped in such a pleading manner from this usually so cocky individual scared Chris more than he would have admitted. The leader of the seven looked to the black man kneeling again next to them.
"We have to get him back to my place. I ain't never seen an opium reaction, so I can't say if... well, I think we should jus' get him back to town as soon as we can."
"Opium?!" Buck blurted, "What the hell you talkin' 'bout, Nathan?"
Chris looked to his old friend, "Later, Buck. Take Savannah and one of those horses," he motioned with his head in the direction of the three new mounts. "Vin, Nathan, help me get him up. I'll take him with me. Then each of you grab a horse. Doc, why don't you take the gray. You can travel faster, get to your clinic and get ready for us."
Larabee knew that for the ease of his own animal he should really have put Ezra on one of the extra equines. But he couldn't shake the beseeching look he had seen in Standish's eyes. Until they could get back to town Chris felt that a close, familiar presence would do the most toward keeping the southerner calm.
After Jackson and Tanner help Chris get settled with his passenger, Nathan cast a look at the two bodies Buck had pulled to the cover of the rocks. "We can notify Terrance about these fellas when we get back so he can pick 'em up."
Larabee secured a hold on the sickly form resting against him on the horse and shot back a venomous reply, "You can tell the undertaker if you want, Nathan. As far as I'm concerned, they can rot out here 'till the vultures strip their bones."
And with a clicking sound and a slight dig of his heels Chris spurred his horse forward, eager to get back to town.
Ezra was convinced this was yet another in a string of bizarre dreams that had plagued him for an endless amount of time. It must be the flu, that would explain why he felt like dying. He supposed it could be seasickness, he'd experienced that several times when on a boat off the coast of Florida. But no, one usually wasn't on a horse if one was seasick.
He was extremely grateful to whoever had decided to steady him on the horse. Although the strong arm across his stomach made him that much more aware of the now painfully achy feeling he was experiencing, it did help relieve the anxiety that had plagued him for so long. The voice attached to the arm had told him 'no more' and he believed it.
His body cringed at the mental memory of the prickly, tingling sensation that followed the jab of the needle. 'No more,' he said to himself. Ezra allowed himself to lean back against the warm body and tried to concentrate on something other than the piercing pain in his head.
"Is Ezra gonna be okay?" Savannah hadn't said anything since she first asked what was wrong with the gambler.
Buck pulled himself from his own worried thoughts and smiled at the girl sitting in front of him. " 'Course he is, darlin'. An' you can bet ol' Buck wouldn't lie to a lady."
"What's wrong with him?"
"Well, I ain't quite sure. We'll know more once Nathan gets a chance to get a better look at him. But that Ezra, well, he may look fancy, but I've broken wild horses that haven't been as stubborn or determined as him. Why, I remember once..." and Wilmington launched into a colorful tale involving Standish and a one-legged card sharp that kept the young girl's mind elsewhere until they reached Four Corner's.
By the time they reached Nathan's clinic Chris could feel that his shirtfront was damp with sweat, which normally he wouldn't have given a second thought about. Except this time, it wasn't his. Ezra's shivering had increased in the time it took them to get back to town and the perspiration had soaked through his fine shirt and dark blue vest.
Josiah and JD were waiting at the base of the clinic's wooden stairs. Chris could tell by their faces that Jackson had given them what few details he had gathered before riding ahead.
"How is he?" JD held Chris's horse steady while the other two men slid Ezra from the saddle. The young man's face reflected the concern they all felt but which the others had had more practice at concealing.
Chris swung himself to the ground and helped Josiah steady the southerner, "I think he's getting worse. JD, you and Vin see to the horses. Buck, find Mary, get Savannah to her sister. Where's Nathan?"
Sanchez was shocked by how pale and soaked with sweat Standish was. "He's boiling some herbs that I think might help." Chris shot the big man a look and wondered when the preacher had started doling out medical advice. But he set aside the thought as Nathan met them halfway down the stairs.
"Get 'im inside. Get them clothes off 'im too. I'll grab some of my things, ain't as pretty but their dry and warm."
Josiah sat with the gambler on the bed and helped Chris strip off the damp, dirt smeared clothes.
"I don' care wha' you believe, Cousin Millie pushed me in first."
Chris looked at Josiah with a bewildered expression and shrugged his shoulders at Ezra's odd ramblings.
"Has he been doing this long? The talking, I mean."
"A few sentences on our way back, something about Buck, something about Baton Rouge. Nothing I could really understand."
Nathan came in with some fresh clothes and passed them off to his friends. He had included a shirt for Chris, unconsciously picking a dark gray one that matched Larabee's usual attire.
"I got that tea brewed down, Josiah. You think it'll help?"
"We'll have to just try it and see," replied the preacher. Chris was impressed at how delicately the big man maneuvered Ezra into the dry cotton shirt and hemp pants. Standish attempted to pull away from them several times, wincing at their touch.
They had just managed to get him under the heavy covers when Buck pounded up the steps and entered the room. Chris changed out of his own damp shirt as Wilmington filled them in.
"Mary's at the hotel with Savannah and Josephine, seein' to gettin' them fed." He folded his arms tight against his body and leaned against the wall by the door. "How is he?"
"Not sure yet," answered Josiah. He had taken a spot on the bed next to Ezra and was trying to get the southerner to acknowledge his presence.
"Ezra? Can you hear me? Ezra, open your eyes, now. It's Josiah. Look at me."
"I know it's you, Josiah," drawled a weak voice. "But until you get some proper window coverin's to block that goddamn light I am leavin' my eyes closed, thank you."
Chris and Buck moved at the same time to find extra blankets to hang over the windows as Nathan approached the wrought iron bed with a steaming mug of tea. The corners of Sanchez's mouth turned up in a slight smile at Standish's response. "Tell you what. We'll cover the windows, if you drink some of this."
Josiah took the mug from Nathan and helped Ezra sit forward as Jackson stacked more pillows behind the still shivering form.
The preacher eased his friend back and helped him take in some of the warm liquid. Ezra suddenly remembered how thirsty he had been and found himself swallowing a couple of mouthfuls before Josiah tipped the mug away and got Standish to lie back.
"Take it easy, not too much at once."
Ezra's eyes were closed but a frown set itself across his mouth. "I know what I'm doin'. If you don' think I know how to mix a miracle cure by now, then go find yourself another partner."
Buck finished hanging the last blanket that made the room as dark as they could get it. "What the hell's he talkin' about?"
Josiah sighed and announced almost to himself, "This is the bad part."
"What?" Buck's concern over Ezra's strange behavior exhibited itself in an irritated tone. "What's wrong with him?"
Ezra's eyes opened wide and he pressed himself back into the pillows. "I don't know where they are, don't you think I would tell you if I knew?"
Sanchez remained very still on the bed and spoke to Standish in a soft, steady tone. "Ezra, it's Josiah. Do you remember?" The southerner's eyes were closed again but there was no recognition to the preacher's question. "Ezra, listen to my voice. You're at Nathan's. You're in Four Corners and Chris and Buck are here, too."
"Then maybe, between the four of you, you could manage to get me some water."
"Try some more tea."
Ezra's eyes flickered open and he looked at the deeply lined face before him. "I suppose I am the only one who has come down with this miserable flu?" He nearly drained the mug before Josiah pulled it away and eased him back.
"Do you remember where you were last night?"
The gambler opened his mouth to answer but paused as he realized he wasn't sure. More heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs announced Vin and JD.
"How is he?" The words were out of Dunne's mouth before he was even all the way through the door.
"I have the flu, JD," came a sharp answer in a disgusted drawl. "And I don't see wh-" He stopped suddenly and swallowed hard. "I'm goin' to be ill."
Josiah had had Nathan prepare for such an occurrence, so the wooden bucket resting next to the bed was easy for the preacher to scoop up and hold as Ezra leaned over it and vomited up some of the water he had just taken in.
As Standish slumped back into the pillows Nathan approached with a cool, wet rag and rested it across his friend's forehead. Ezra winced as the cloth touched his head wound.
The healer crossed back to his supply cabinet, "That needs to be cleaned."
Josiah tried again, "Ezra, do you remember where you were last night?"
The southerner's eyes were half-open as he lay on his left side. "Dominoes, did rather well. Why is it so cold in here?"
Chris pulled the remaining two blankets from the chest that Nathan kept in a corner and draped them over Standish.
Sanchez prompted once more, "What about Savannah and Josephine?"
A worried expression consumed the gambler's features and he attempted to sit up. "Dear Lord, those girls!"
Josiah pushed him back down, "It's all right, they're fine, they're with Mary."
At the big man's touch on his shoulder Ezra shrank back. They all saw the look on their friend's face. Fear; as a dark memory, a dream that is suddenly realized as fact, is remembered. Ezra grabbed at the right sleeve of his shirt, pushing it up to expose the bruised hollow of his pale arm.
All that could be heard in the room was his slight intake of air then utter silence as the gambler stared at the tiny, vicious marks. Abruptly, he turned back to the side of the bed and vomited the rest of the tea into the wooden bucket.
Josiah had caught the wet rag before it hit the floor and laid it across the back of Ezra's neck as his friend rested his face on the mattress. Sanchez sensed that the gambler didn't want to raise his head, didn't want to look anyone in the eye.
The preacher offered his thoughts, "They wanted to know where the girls were." It was a statement rather than a question. "You didn't tell them. Guess they didn't know how stubborn you can be."
The only movement or sound was the regular shudder of the gambler's chills and his heavy breathing.
Josiah continued, "Nathan says he saw at least three holes. Do you remember?"
A barely perceptible nod.
"You probably weren't at that camp more that fifteen hours, that's not a lot of time for that number of doses. The hours ahead are most likely gonna feel like a flu mixed with the worst hangover you ever had. You're gonna dream some, I'm betting you already have. They'll probably get worse."
"But all you have to keep telling yourself is that you're at Nathan's and you're safe and things that you may hear or see, well, those things aren't real. You keep that in your mind."
Ezra curled as his stomach muscles tightened again and tried to purge his stomach of its contents, but all that came up was a small amount of tea.
"Leave." It was barely a whisper but in the silence of the room it was audible to everyone. "Please. Just go."
There was no hint of sarcasm or anger, just a simple appeal.
Vin was the first to move, opening the door and padding silently from the room. Buck and JD exchanged a look and followed. Josiah made a move to rise but a warm, clammy hand gripped his wrist and held tight for several seconds before releasing. From where Chris was standing he was the only one to see the move, he caught Sanchez's eye briefly and knew that whatever lay ahead for Ezra, Josiah was going to be the best one to help him through it.
Larabee moved to Nathan to speak with him briefly. At the bed, Josiah heard the shift in Ezra's breathing pattern. He pulled the cloth from his friend's neck and eased him over onto his back, exposing the angry red mark across the southerner's temple.
"He's asleep, we should try to get this wound cleaned while we can. Chris, you mind helping?"
Nathan gathered up the supplies he had prepared and carried them to a table beside the bed. "Chris, you wanna pull one a 'them blankets aside so's I can get some more light?"
Larabee did as he was asked before crossing back to the bed. As Nathan began to clean the wound, Ezra remained asleep. But the dirt and sweat that had accumulated had brought on a minor infection and as the healer tried to scraped the debris from the puffy skin Standish stirred.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed by the gambler's legs and placed his hand on the other side of the mattress, crossing Ezra's body, not wanting a repeat of the blow that was delivered to Jackson earlier. Josiah mimicked Larabee's action to prevent their patient from striking out with his arms.
"Is that necessary?" The voice was laced with irritation toward Nathan. Josiah also noticed the southern accent was thicker, as it had been earlier when Standish had talked about his Cousin Millie and mixing up the 'miracle cure'.
"It is if you don' want it to get worse than it is," replied Jackson as he continued his work.
"I don't think he's with us right now, Nathan." Josiah had explained to the healer what they might expect in the coming hours.
Chris, however, still wasn't sure exactly what was going on and found himself slightly annoyed with the confrontational tone that Ezra had displayed several times already.
Ezra's eyes opened partially as he flinched away from the ministrations, "That hurts! If you don't mind."
Nathan ignored him again and pressed at the wound a little more, rinsing away the dirt and viscous fluids.
"Damn it! Are you stupid? Get away from me!"
Josiah and Chris leaned low across Ezra at the same time expecting the delusional man to strike at Jackson.
"If you hold still he'll be able to finish," Chris snapped. "Nathan's just trying to help."
Ezra's bleary eyes shifted around the room passing over Chris and Nathan. He flinched again, "And what makes you think Ezra Simpson needs help from a negro!"
Chris was off the bed in a second and slammed both his hands against Standish's chest forcing him back, "What the hell is wrong with you?"
But in the same movement Josiah, who had remained unmoving and whose strong arm was still across Ezra's body and now brushing against Larabee's stomach as the ex-gunslinger leaned over Standish, swept Chris back and pushed him up till he stood away from the bed.
Chris cut Josiah with a piercing gaze but said nothing, just stalked away and across the room. Flinging the door open he ignored the shocked expressions of the men who had been listening outside but turned as he heard Nathan's boots striking the floor hard behind him.
The tall black man did his best not to slam the door as he faced Larabee.
"What was that?" he demanded.
Chris looked at him incredulously, "You're asking me?" He couldn't believe that Nathan didn't seem effected by the comment directed toward him.
"If anyone here might have some idea as to what he's goin' through, I figured it would be you."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean? You mean to tell me that you can stand there and listen to some ungrateful-"
But Nathan cut him off. "You mean to tell me that you, during one of them times you crawled into a whiskey bottle, never said some ugly things. Things that you know you didn't mean and wished to God that you could take back once you came to your senses because it hadn't been you talkin'?"
Chris sensed Buck shift nervously as Nathan continued.
"This ain't even his own doin'. I'm just askin' that you take that into consideration."
Larabee held his intense glare on Nathan for a second before turning on his heel and walking away. His men watched him wordlessly, all more than a little surprised that they weren't having to pick up Nathan from off the hard wood landing.
"Is it a bad time?" Mary's voice sounded apprehensive as she and Savannah approached the foot of the stairs. They hadn't heard the argument but it was obvious by the way Chris had stalked toward the saloon that there had been trouble.
"I don't think we're the ones to ask," came Buck's reply.
They climbed the steps and Nathan knelt before the small girl that was still wrapped in the plum colored coat, "I came to see Ezra." As if the healer had another idea as to what the child was doing at his clinic.
Mary spoke up, "Josephine is asleep, Mrs. Van Gunden is watching her and Savannah wanted to check on Ezra before she agreed to getting some rest herself."
Nathan was concerned about the girl being around the southerner if he slid into another of the dark moods that had gripped him earlier. But something told him it would be all right and he stood to let the child through.
They watched her go in and Nathan pulled the door closed behind her, leaving it slightly ajar.
"Wouldn't nobody give you some fresh clothes for those children?"
It took Mary a second to realize what Nathan was talking about. "Mrs. Van Gunden did, some things that her daughters outgrew. They both changed but Savannah won't give up that coat. As soon as she had the new dress on she was insistent that she keep the jacket with her." She paused, recalling the look on Chris's face as he stormed past her and Savannah. "Things aren't well, I take it?"
Her blue eyes were clouded with concern, not only for Ezra but also for the group that he belonged to. She knew how protective they were of each other and she had seen on more than one occasion the helplessness and guilt they felt when on of their own was wounded.
"I'm sure they've been worse... I jus' can't seem to think of when, though."
The door squeaked open and closed as Josiah stepped out into the late afternoon sun. He looked over the faces of his friends and motioned them downstairs.
"He's asleep but I don't know for how long, maybe I can fill ya in on what I know."
Buck, JD and Nathan each rested on a separate step at the bottom of the stairs. Vin leaned against the handrail next to Mary as Josiah explained what he could.
"I am by no means an expert on this sort of thing but I have spent more than one occasion helping men rid their bodies of self-inflicted demons. Including the kind that plagues our brother now. From what I've gathered he helped those two girls but he ended up getting into a world of hurt because of it."
"I was finally able to get a good look at that arm. Three holes, Nathan, you were right. Each one of those shots should have lasted about four to five hours, so they had him dosed pretty well."
Vin interrupted, "If they were hopin' to get answers from him ain't that a bit much?"
"Didn't make much sense to me either. Unless, once they realized they weren't getting any answers that way, they decided to give him a bunch more hoping it would be that much worse for him as it started to wear off. Maybe they figured he'd give up those girls if he felt sick enough and knew there was something nearby that would make him feel better."
JD looked at Josiah earnestly, "He ain't... well… I mean… can't you get addicted to opium?"
"No need to worry about that, son. It takes a lot more than three shots of opi before you start craving it. But fading from it, well, that can be bad no matter how you look at it. You've seen part of it already; not able to keep much down, sweats. Head and body aches is another part."
"But there can also be emotions running up and down, hallucinating, nightmares. That's the worst."
JD glanced at his friends, "He called himself Simpson, that's one of the names he used to go by. Don't he know where he is?"
"He's most likely going to drift in and out," Sanchez answered.
"When will he be better?" It made Mary sick and angry to imagine that humans could inflict so much pain on each other, especially when that pain was directed toward someone who she considered a friend.
Josiah didn't look at her but rather up the stairs in the direction of the room on the second floor. "Let's just say it's going to be a long night."
The sound of a door opening broke the tense silence that followed the preacher's prediction. "Josiah? He's waking up?"
The three men on the stairs moved aside and let Sanchez lead the way. Savannah waited at the door, "I got him to take some more tea but he's talking again. I don't know what he wants."
Josiah slipped past the child and crossed to the bed. The others hung by the door, not expecting to be able to help but being more than willing to stay close if the need for them arose.
The southerner rested deep in the bedding, the blankets pulled high over his shoulders and around his ashen face. Sanchez noted that the tremors that racked Ezra's body earlier seemed to have subsided slightly.
Standish's eyes were half-open but the preacher could tell he wasn't seeing what was in the room. Josiah could make out the words but the collective ramblings of the southerner weren't making any sense. Sanchez took up the spot on the edge of the bed.
Sensing the presence, Ezra drew back, as if sinking into the pillows would keep him safe from whatever it was he so obviously wanted to get away from. His breathing came in quick, shallow breaths and as the southerner shut his eyes tightly, Josiah could see the tiniest bit of moisture wet the thick, dark lashes.
Sanchez motioned for Nathan to trade places with him. It was clear that something about the big man's being there disturbed Standish. Jackson sat down on the bed, hoping not to invoke the same reaction.
"No more," A soft, accented whisper. The green eyes opened again and fixed on the far wall. "Chris?"
The healer avoided physical contact, unsure of what it may trigger. "Ezra? It's Nathan, you're at my clinic, remember?"
Worried eyes looked to Jackson, seemingly confused at the face. "didn' leave, Chris..."
Nathan sensed the action even before it happened. He pulled the wooden bucket up with one hand and placed his other on Ezra's back to lean him toward the edge of the bed as the southerner vomited the amount of tea that Savannah had gotten him to ingest.
JD couldn't stand it, with his arms crossed tightly across his body he turned and pushed past Buck, making his way back down the stairs. He was surprised to see Vin already there, he hadn't even heard the tracker leave.
Mary, Buck and Josiah came out a few seconds behind JD. Wilmington held Savannah in his arms and was whispering something to her. Mary continued past the men and walked with determined steps toward the saloon.
Chris sat in the farthest, darkest corner of the saloon he could find and stared at the bottle on the table in front of him.
He'd been staring at it for five minutes, which was exactly one minute longer than he had been in the bar. He hadn't realized how second nature the behavior had become until he was already in the chair and reaching for the bottle. That was when Nathan's words came crashing back at him.
The healer had Larabee dead to rights. How many times had Chris said things to Buck in the drunken blurred months following the deaths of Sarah and Adam? Things easily worse than the in-bred slur Ezra had pulled from some region of his past.
And Chris's first reaction had been to attack Standish for it. He rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose. His anger, like so many times before, had been directed at the wrong person.
He was furious at the bastards that had inflicted this waking nightmare on one of his men. Furious at the idea of what the gambler must have gone through and was going through now. Furious at himself for not having sensed, known somehow, that something was wrong when Standish hadn't been back that morning.
He wanted to go back to Nathan's because he believed the healer was right. He probably did have the best idea of what Ezra would be going through.
Knowing what it was like to stare at a trembling hand and attempt everything in your futile power to make it be still. Closing your eyes against the demons that only seem to grow bigger in the darkness. And knowing, being so positive that you would never be pulled from that Hell.
Until someone put his hand on your shoulder and steadied your body and your mind, talked to you till the sun came up, till you could look at the world again and not be afraid.
He had no right to go back there. He would just be another demon.
"Chris?" Mary's voice was soft but still managed to startle the ex-gunslinger. Her eyes flitted briefly to the whiskey bottle on the table but away from it quickly as she noticed it was untouched.
"I think Ezra's asking for you." The odd stare she met with prompted her to try to explain more. "Nathan has tried to calm him but..." she faltered as she pictured the confused look in the normally imperturbable green eyes. "He... he's said your name several times and something about not leaving. Then he seemed to be... somewhere else." She couldn't bring herself to say the words. '...seemed to be back with the men who did this.'
Chris felt an icy rage wash over him, as he listened silently to Mary Travis telling him what had happened. He waited until she was finished and strode angrily out of the saloon. The four grim faced men waiting below Nathan's clinic stepped aside to let their leader pass. The expression on his face warned them all not to get in his way. As Chris made his way inside the clinic Nathan took one look at his angry face and held up a warning hand. He jerked his head, indicating outside.
"How bad is it? Chris demanded, once they were on the landing of the clinic's stairs.
"It ain't good. They hurt him Chris. They hurt him real bad. Fact is, he's gonna hurt a lot more 'fore it's over. What he needs most, is peace and quiet and rest. He just ain't up to handlin' none of your moods right now," Nathan told the gunslinger sternly.
Chris started to say something in reply, but Nathan cut him off harshly. "I mean it Chris. You say one word in there, that ain't fit for Sunday mornin' meetin' and I'll put you out."
Chris' angry eyes met Nathan's fiercely protective brown ones and any thought he'd given to arguing ended. He nodded meekly and followed the healer back into the clinic.
The four men waiting at the foot of the stairs exchanged impressed glances. Very few people stood up to Chris Larabee and even fewer had cowed the gunslinger so completely.
Chris crossed to the figure curled on its side, propped up against the pillows. Ezra's eyes remained closed as Larabee took a seat on the bed and pressed the back of his hand against the gambler's forehead. Sensing the touch, the glassy green eyes pulled themselves open and blinked several times.
Some part of Ezra's memory connected the face before him with a promise. He closed his eyes, feeling safe. "no more," he whispered.
Chris wrung out the rag sitting in a basin on the bedside table and brushed lightly at a spot of dried blood that adhered a piece of the southerner's dark hair to the side of his head. "No, no more," he assured.
Larabee heard the door close and sensed that Nathan must have decided the gunslinger was in a stable enough mood to be left alone with Standish.
"didn't run out this time." The whisper seemed stronger but still distant, as if Chris were listening to someone talking in their sleep.
Larabee wasn't sure what the southerner meant. "What didn't run out?"
"ran out once... never again."
The realization hit Chris like a cold wave. That's what he had said to the gambler, when was that? God, it seemed like a lifetime ago. But for the figure before him, it really was a lifetime. A different life. If someone had told Larabee at the time where Ezra Standish would be now, Chris knew without a doubt that he would have called them a stone liar to their face.
Chris had honestly never given much thought to the idea that Standish had taken him that seriously. He had thought about what kept the gambler in the small town. About what kept him attached to the six men so very different than him. About how an individual that Chris thought he had pegged never stopped surprising him.
But it wasn't until that moment that Larabee thought about exactly how much Ezra Standish kept from the others. Of course he had a past that he rarely talked about, each of them did. Chris believed that was one of the things that held the group together. Where else would each of them have found people who would put up with such taciturn bullshit?
But how long ago had Ezra given up on trying to find such people? Resigned to having only himself to depend upon. And yet, as he had proven that day so long ago, the gambler couldn't completely bury the instinct that made him so unlike the scoundrel he professed himself to be.
'Ezra, Buck, Nathan; is there anyone around here I don't owe some form of apology to?'
Chris laid the rag back in the china bowl and brushed the now free lock of hair back amongst the others. Looking over the features that seemed as pale as the bandage Josiah had finally managed to get on Standish, Larabee murmured, "No... you sure didn't turn your back this time." Then, adding in a less bittersweet tone, "You better watch yourself, somebody's gonna accuse you of finding your conscience."
Ezra seemed to have drifted back into a steady sleep so Chris rose from the bed and pulled up a chair. Noticing the few slips of fading sunlight that found their way past the blankets he and Buck had put up in front of the windows Larabee realized suddenly how tired he was. Pulling off his boots he leaned back in the chair, crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes.
And said a silent prayer that his own experience of being a demon would stave off the ones that were sure to visit his friend in the coming hours.
Chris awoke with a start. His eyes scanned the room as his brain recalled where he was. A lit lamp and a blanket across his body made it obvious that one of the others had been in to check on them.
It was a tear-driven gasp coming from the form on the bed that had awoken Chris. And as Larabee took in the salt drops around the eyes and the sheen of perspiration that made Standish's face glow in the lamplight Chris realized that the demons had come to call.
The gambler's eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids and he had managed to kick off the wool blankets that he had craved earlier. His jaw was set firmly, the teeth clenched together. But it was the repeated wince that flickered across the haggard face that worried Chris. He didn't know where Ezra was but he thought it might be best to try to pull him from there.
"Ezra?" Larabee leaned forward and laid a hand on the southerner's shoulder hoping to shake him awake. And a second after the flashing green eyes flew open the gunslinger realized his mistake. The sloppy upper cut caught Chris under the left side of his jaw and sent him tipping back over his chair. The two of them slammed down hard against the bare floor.
It took Larabee a moment to get his bearings and untangle himself from the blanket and chair. Placing a hand to his jaw he was amazed that a punch with so little force behind it could hurt so much.
He focused on Ezra; now pushed into a sitting position, his back pressed firmly against the headboard. The wide eyes and the way Standish protectively guarded the bruised hollow of his right arm made Chris wary of trying to approach his friend.
"What the hell's goin' on?" The southerner's voice was an unnatural mix of confusion and fear.
Larabee responded in a calm voice, "You hit me."
The door of the clinic flew open, causing both men to start. "Chris?! You all right?" The tired look in Nathan's eyes and his wrinkled clothes made it apparent the healer had been awoken by the crashing sound as he slept in the room below.
Larabee waved him off and uprighted the chair, "It's fine, Nathan. Go back to sleep."
But Jackson remained where he was, moonlight streaming in around him. His dark eyes moving from the blonde man to the figure on the bed and back again. Sensing the healer's uncertainty Chris turned and gave the tall man a look that made his point clear.
The corners of Nathan's mouth turned down slightly, "Well, you call if you need anythin'."
"I'll just push the chair over again," Chris deadpanned.
The healer couldn't prevent a tiny smile from cropping up as he shook his head and closed the door.
Larabee wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and crossed the room to retrieve a pitcher of water and a glass. Ezra had relaxed somewhat but remained in a sitting position with his knees pulled up to his chest. He hugged his right arm tightly to his body and Chris wasn't sure if it was a conscious or unconscious move.
Filling the glass halfway Chris offered it to Standish. The gambler reached with a slow, shaky hand and sipped at the water cautiously.
"Wise idea," commented Larabee as he placed the pitcher on the bedside table. "You haven't done too well with liquids tonight."
He took a seat in the hard wood chair and stretched his lean legs out. Rubbing his still aching jaw, he watched the lamplight bounce shadows around the room.
"How ya feeling?"
Ezra concentrated on the glass in his left hand as he rested it on his knees and paused before responding. "My apologies, for striking you, Mr. Larabee."
Chris gave the southerner the courtesy of pretending not to notice the evident liquid shine in the other's eyes or the tightness of his voice.
"My fault, I should know better than to try to wake you before ten a.m."
Ezra continued to stare at the water in his hand and made no move to brush away the tear that rolled from the corner of his right eye. Chris, in turn, shifted his focus back to the dancing shapes that ran up and down the wall. Recalling some of his own bad dreams before voicing his thoughts.
"That's the problem with nightmares, they come in the dark when you're alone, when there's plenty for them to hide behind. If they came during the day, they'd be a hell of a lot easier to face."
The southern drawl was not much above a whisper, "And what happens when one is alone durin' the day, as well?"
Chris remained motionless but allowed his gaze to shift to Standish, "Well in order for that to happen there would have to be no one around who would notice they were alone."
"Somehow, I do not believe that would be very difficult."
"For some folks maybe, for others, damn near impossible."
"It appears our young Mr. Dunne's optimism has begun to wear off on you."
Chris didn't miss a beat. "I hope it has. I think we could all use some."
"I fear I wouldn't know what to do with it."
"Makes a damn good hole card."
"When the chips are down?" retorted the southerner sardonically, his eyes still fixed on the glass resting on his knees. "Please, Mr. Larabee."
'Damn, if this is the kind of attitude Buck had to put up with I owe him more of an apology than I thought. Fine, Ezra, you wanna see which one of us can be more of a jerk."
Larabee sat forward in his chair, "Then why stick around, if things like JD's optimism irritate you?"
Ezra's head whipped up to face the blonde man next to him. Even in the lamplight Chris could see the dark shadows under the still hazy eyes.
"I never said that!" The voice was still low only now it came out more as a hiss than the previous whisper.
Larabee had the feeling it was only the residual of Standish's ordeal that allowed the display of emotion. Chris softened his tone slightly as he spoke again but had no intention of allowing Ezra's demons to get the better of the gambler.
"No, you didn't. Because I don't think it does irritate you. I think you stay for the same reasons the rest of us do. Because we belong. Because Fate may have finally realized how badly she messed up and this is her way of making up for it."
"Having people who care about you ain't a bad thing, neither is letting yourself care for those same people. Might be different than what's gone on in the past, might scare you; but it ain't bad."
Chris was surprised that Ezra held his gaze for as long as he had, waiting until Larabee paused before turning back to the glass of water.
"All I'm saying is that whether we like it or not, we seem to have a family here. No sense not taking advantage of that." Chris looked down at his feet, a small smile edging its way onto his lips, "I'd be lying if I said it was easy, hell, most of us are too damn stubborn to ask for water if we were on fire."
"But you waste too much life trying to keep everything inside and deal with problems on your own." Chris hoped Ezra wouldn't call the gunslinger on his hypocritical words. Then again, Larabee could honestly say that since he had been drawn into the odd collective he was making an effort to let go of the darkness that had been holding him for so long.
Ezra took a small sip of water, "And too much tryin' to keep anythin' from this group."
Chris let out a whisper of a laugh, "That's one thing about families, they drive ya insane and there's no getting rid of them."
Larabee pulled the glass from Ezra's hands and rested it on the bedside table before turning down the lamp. In the dark he could hear Standish stretch out and settle himself under the heavy layers of bedding.
Chris watched the silhouetted form and listened, as the breathing became more relaxed and fell into an easy pattern.
"That's the other thing about families, you can trust them never to run out on you."
It was the thump that awoke Ezra but it was the voices that made him open his eyes and pull himself from the much needed, dreamless sleep.
"Careful, Jo. You're gonna wake him up."
Ezra swallowed once in an attempt to get his tired voice to work, "That is not something you need concern yourself with." He rolled himself over to see Savannah and Josephine watching him from halfway across the room. Jo was standing next to a hard wood chair and rubbing her knee.
"You must watch yourself around that piece of furniture, my dear, it has been known to incapacitate grown men."
Both girls had their hair pulled up away from their faces in matching French braids. The calico dresses they had on bore evidence of fresh grass stains and Standish noticed that Jo seemed brighter and more awake than when he had first seen her.
Savannah had Ezra's dark purple wool coat folded neatly and clutched to her chest. She rested it carefully on the chair, speaking as she did so, "Mary helped me clean it, she said I could bring it up here. But she has the flask."
A smile lifted the corners of the gambler's dry lips, "I'm sure she does."
The girls crossed to stand next to the bed, Jo still rubbing her knee.
"Josiah says you're going to be fine," stated Savannah in a confident tone.
"Oh, did he? Well, then, I suppose I shall have to be."
The hurried pounding of small footsteps up to Nathan's landing made both girls turn toward the door they had left open.
Billy burst into the entryway, "C'mon! Mom wants us to help pack lunches before we go." He spun around and ran right into Chris who had been following him. "Oh, sorry,"
"'S all right," replied Larabee with a smile, tousling the boy's hair "but you best go help your mom or we won't have lunch."
Jo turned back to Ezra, brown eyes wide and sparkling, "Chris is gonna take us fishing. It's our first time!"
The southerner eased himself into a sitting position, "Well, you had better make sure you assist with lunches then, otherwise you may be relying on Mr. Larabee's fishing skills for your supper."
The girls darted off to follow Billy, weaving their way past Chris.
Larabee leaned against the door jam and eyed Ezra, "Somehow, they're under the impression that I am the man to take fishing."
Standish's face was the picture of innocence, "Really? Well, I'm sure it came from a most reputable source."
Chris offered a sincere smile, "I'm sure it did... How ya feeling?"
"Hopefully better than I appear. What am I wearin'?" Noticing for the first time the too long sleeves of the cotton shirt.
"Probably shouldn't let Nathan hear you say that."
"Say what?" Nathan appeared from behind Chris brushing his hands on his dark brown pants.
Ezra responded immediately, "That I was thinkin' of liberatin' myself from this room and into a warm bath."
Chris shook his head and rolled his eyes at how quickly and smoothly the gambler had covered his disparaging remarks toward the loaned clothing.
Nathan busied himself at a wash basin before crossing to check Ezra's head wound. "You ain't goin' nowhere till you eat." Satisfied that the bandaged area looked good, the healer headed for the exit, "I'll have Inez bring somethin' up."
As Jackson left Ezra could see him shuffle awkwardly as he moved past Josiah and Vin coming toward the door. Chris moved back into the room to allow the two men easy passage.
"You were right, Josiah." Vin nudged the big preacher with an elbow as they both looked toward Standish.
Noticing the confused look from the tired face, Sanchez offered an explanation. "Vin didn't believe you would be awake yet."
The southerner shot them both a dry look. "On a peaceful Thursday morning such as this, how could I not be?"
"Friday morning," Chris corrected. "You slept through Thursday."
Ezra's eyes widened slightly as a young male voice called from somewhere outside, "C'mon, Chris."
Buck's drawl followed as he strolled in, squeezing past the other men. "You best get goin', Chris. Handlin' Billy is one thing, but I don't think you want Savannah after ya."
"Good Lord," mumbled Ezra, at the sight of the new arrival, "we are just a few clowns short of a circus."
"Is he awake?" JD's voice could be heard seconds before his head popped around the corner of the doorframe.
Josiah raised an eyebrow in Ezra's direction, "Ask and ye shall receive."
"Hey Ezra, how ya feelin'?" JD's clothes, like Savannah's and Jo's, showed signs of fresh grass smears and his dark hair appeared to be in more of a state of disarray than usual.
Chris caught Ezra's eye right before he drifted out of the room, "Drive ya insane and there's no getting rid of them."
Ezra allowed himself a smile, "I am... better, JD, thank you."
"What is it with you people?" Nathan's voice cut through the room like a knife. "Do you try to make my job as hard as you can? Outta here, all a' ya'll, I got a bandage to change and he needs rest."
JD flashed a scolded puppy look at Jackson but threw a quick wave and smile to Standish before he and Buck made for the door.
Vin, rather than heading outside walked to the bedside table and lay down the objects he held in his rough hand. A gold pocket watch and a well worn deck of cards. With a smile he tipped two fingers to the brim of his hat and drifted wordlessly to the street below.
Josiah gave the southerner a knowing nod, "Yes sir, a beautiful morning it is." Then he too left Nathan to his work.
Jackson gently pulled the bandage from Ezra's forehead, mumbling to himself, "It shouldn't be so difficult to maintain peace an' quiet in a sick room."
"Is it a good time?" Mary's soft-voiced comment made Standish smile at its timing.
But Nathan seemed to feel that the woman's entrance did not fall into the same irritating classification as the others' presence did.
"'Course, Mary," the black man answered warmly, "just changin' a bandage."
Ezra winced as Nathan poked at the healing area by the gambler's temple but he managed a smile as Mary became visible at the foot of the bed.
"Forgive my not gettin' up, Mrs. Travis. I am at a bit of a disadvantage at the moment."
"Nonsense, Ezra. I just came to let you know what I found out about the girls. With some help from a certain circuit court judge I sent some wires back to Pennsylvania and Ohio."
"It seems their father, a Mr. Kirk Hilderbrand, after being arrested, admitted to selling his daughters to a family in San Francisco for thirty-five hundred dollars. Which he planned on giving two thousand of to a Mr. Beamish and Mr. Gilbere."
Mary couldn't help but notice Ezra's eyes shift downward and focus on the bedclothes at the mention of the two names. She pretended not to notice and continued with her findings.
"The couple in San Francisco thought they were paying a 'donation' to the orphanage which they were adopting the sisters from. Apparently Mr. Hilderbrand is going to be charged for forgery and falsification of documents, as well."
"But, if there is anything positive that came out of this ordeal it would be that the McGillivray's, the couple in California, have been found to be more than acceptable adoptive parents for the girls. Savannah and Josephine will be leaving tomorrow for their new home."
Nathan had finished changing the bandage and was cleaning up at the sideboard across the room. Consequently, it was only Mary that witnessed the look in Ezra's eyes as he heard the last sentence and looked up.
"T-Tomorrow? Really? How... fortunate for them."
"Mrs. Van Gunden has family in San Francisco, she agreed to accompany the girls." Mary didn't like being the one to deliver the news. Actually, she didn't even think Standish would have given much thought to it at all. She tried to think of something else to say to break the awkward silence. Then she noticed the plum colored coat.
"I see you got your jacket back."
"What? Oh, yes. Delivered this mornin.'"
Mary crossed to it and brushed a small piece of grass from the rich fabric. "It was all I could do to convince Savannah to give it up. She even slept in it Wednesday night."
The look that met Mary's face was one that she would recall for a very long time. Disbelief, mixed with wonder and what seemed to be a sincere joy. And as quickly as it came on it was blinked away when Inez came bustling in with a covered tray balanced on her hip.
Mary said her hellos to Inez and her good-byes to Ezra and Nathan and made her way back to the Clarion, unable to shake that look for the rest of the day.
A cloudless azure fabric stretched over the dry territory and made the afternoon sun the sole focus of a quiet mural.
The Seven stood a several feet back from the coach as the last few pieces of baggage were loaded on the top of the stage. Other than a slight discoloration on the underside of Chris's jaw there was nothing that would have alerted anyone of the disturbing blanket that had enveloped the group over the last few days.
Ezra was aware of the casual glances that flitted in his direction as he had said his good-byes to the two brunettes in the stage; but oddly, he didn't feel as if he were being intruded upon.
Mary followed Mrs. Van Gunden as the older woman spoke a few words in through the wood frame window and bustled toward the men clutching her seemingly bottomless handbag to her side.
"Mr. Standish, Savannah and Josephine wondered if there might be an address where you could be contacted at."
Ezra gestured a hand toward Mary, "If the girls have forgotten anything from the wagon we recovered I'm sure Mrs. Travis would--."
But the redhead cut him off, "Oh no, I'm sorry, you misunderstood. They wanted your address." Ezra blinked at her, waiting for the older woman to continue.
"For correspondence..." she said slowly, seeing that the man wasn't getting what she was saying. "It's what friends do."
Mary came to Standish's rescue, "Why yes, Mrs. Van Gunden, if the girls would like to address letters to Mr. Standish care of The Clarion, I'll see to it that he gets them."
Ezra finally broke from his daze, trying to cover his faltering with a smile, "Uh, y-yes. Yes. That, um, would be the best route of delivery for such correspondence."
Mary walked Mrs. Van Gunden back to the stage and helped her in, securing the small wooden door behind her. As the driver snapped the coach's horses into movement two small faces appeared at the window, offering a final wave before ducking back inside.
All the men noticed the quick movement that Standish made to his eye as the dust from the receding stage settled around them but they didn't comment. Except JD.
"Hey, Ezra? You all right?"
The gambler ran the tip of his tongue across his bottom lip, "Of course, Mr. Dunne, just fi--".
But he stopped as he caught Chris's eye. Standish hadn't been aware he was holding his breath till he exhaled it in a heavy sigh.
"No, JD... I don't think I am." Then, sweeping the odd group that stood close to him, "But I'm sure I will be."
Chris rested a hand on the southerner's shoulder and guided him toward the saloon, "C'mon, you owe us a drink."
Buck barked a laugh, "'Drink' nothin' -- I want a whole damn bottle."
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