The Fishing Trip
First sequel to "Second Childhood."
by Jean Williams
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoy this story
Disclaimer: Ah, if only they were mine, but, alas, they're not. Unfortunately, the privilege of ownership of "The Magnificent Seven" characters belongs to the Mirisch Corp., Trilogy, and MGM, and no infringement on the copyrights held by them is intended. I merely wish to dust the boys off occasionally and bring them out to play for the entertainment of those of us who still miss them dearly.
Warnings: A curse word or two.
Notes: is just a bit of light-hearted relief from all the angst of "Second Childhood" and the next sequel, "Painful Memories."
Back to: Second Childhood
It had been a couple of months since Ezra's accident. His broken arm had finally healed, his bruises had faded away, and outwardly things seemed to be back to normal for him. The only things still bothering him were an occasional headache and a week long gap in his life. Nearly every day though something would trigger his memory, and a vague, mist-shrouded image would drift across his mind.
If the others knew he was having these flashbacks, they chose not to comment on them. A fact which Ezra was extremely grateful for, since some of the images were so strange he had no idea how he would explain them. He thought they were from that missing week, but sometimes he was sure they were becoming tangled up with memories from his childhood. How else could he explain the vision he kept having of a small child being lovingly cared for by Buck and the others... a small child with his face.
Ezra hated the incidents because they left him feeling confused and slightly off-balance. The only good thing about them was the inexplicable warmth that washed over him when he pictured that child surrounded by his friends. He had no idea what it all meant, but it seemed to somehow tie in with the feeling of belonging he now enjoyed when it came to their group. He had actually not been aware of how much he'd wanted to be included as one of their brothers until it had happened.
Even the over-protectiveness they'd been showing him since the accident didn't seem quite as bothersome as it would have before. Ezra was careful not to let them know he was aware of it though, since they seemed to be trying their hardest to watch his back without him knowing they were doing so. He appreciated their thoughtful gesture toward his need to be independent.
Ezra had also come to enjoy their nightly card games. They'd become the most important part of his day and allowed him to unwind enough so that he could sleep at night again. He'd had a problem with that as soon as he'd left the clinic, but spending this time with the others every evening before retiring to his room had finally cured it.
Ezra sat slowly shuffling the cards, idly listening to the relaxed conversation that flowed around the table. Vin and Nathan were discussing how quiet it had been lately, Buck and Josiah were teasing JD about some awful joke he'd told, and Chris sat as he usually did... quietly taking in everything the others were saying, while scanning the room for possible trouble.
Chris's gaze passed slowly over each of his friends and finally settled on Ezra. He stared at the gambler as he finally began dealing out the cards and wondered again if the man had any idea at all how instrumental he'd been in solidifying their little group into a true family. They'd all been close before Ezra had fallen and blessed them with a visit from their "Little One", but caring for the Southerner while he'd been incapacitated had pressed home exactly *how* close they'd become. Every night since he'd fully returned to them, they'd ended the day this same way... with a few drinks, some quiet conversation, and a friendly game of cards. Just a way of reassuring themselves that their family was safe and secure.
Chris was so lost in thought, he didn't even realize Ezra was speaking to him until he heard Maude's name. That grabbed his attention and he straightened in his chair slightly, glancing at the others to see if they were listening before asking Ezra to repeat himself.
Ezra was examining his cards and missed their shared look of apprehension. "I said, I received a telegram from Mother today. She said she was terribly sorry, but she'd have to postpone her visit. Apparently she's attached herself to a rather wealthy businessman and is attempting to bless me with yet another step-father. Poor man... I hope he realizes what he's getting himself into."
The others each silently heaved a sigh of relief at the welcome news. They had been dreading her visit ever since Ezra had informed them she was coming. Nathan had reminded them that the gambler still had no idea that his mother and Uncle Matthew had even been in town, much less what they'd tried to do to him while he was sick. They had had no idea how they were going to act civil to the woman, but knew they had to at least try for Ezra's sake. Now, at least for the moment, they wouldn't have to worry about it.
Josiah frowned down at the lousy cards he held as he attempted to pretend interest in Ezra's news of his mother. "Sorry, Ezra... I'm sure you were anxious to see her." He glanced up when the younger man didn't immediately respond, and saw a look of confusion appear briefly in his eyes.
Ezra opened his mouth to agree, but suddenly found himself unable to do so. Lowering his eyes back down to his cards, he merely nodded instead. Josiah was right... he should be disappointed that his mother wasn't coming... after all, it had been months since he'd last seen her. But for some reason, he felt an immense sense of relief instead at the news that she'd changed her plans. He had lately come to feel a new resentment toward Maude's lack of motherly concern for him. Ezra had no idea why his feelings had changed, but it was becoming harder and harder to make excuses for her. Maybe it was due to the fact that he'd finally come to realize what having a true family felt like. He was slowly learning what he'd missed out on... thanks to his mother... and he wasn't at all sure he'd ever be able to forgive her for that.
"Damn, Ezra... I didn't think your dealing could possibly get any worse, but I guess I was wrong." Buck tossed his cards back down on the table and drained the last of his beer. "I think I've had enough *fun* for one night... I'm headed for bed."
JD laid his cards down and stood up, too. "Good idea, Buck... especially if we want to get an early start tomorrow."
Ezra looked up at the pair in surprise. "You and our young associate takin' a trip, Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck frowned and then remembered the gambler hadn't heard about their plans. "That's right, you were out on patrol when we asked Chris 'bout gettin' a few days off. We're goin' on a little fishin' trip... I found us a new spot to try on the way back from Ridge City last week. Purty little place up in the mountains... no drunk cowhands, no outlaws, no squabblin' families... just peace an' quiet an' hopefully a bunch of fish to catch."
JD grinned hugely and nodded his head in agreement as he pulled on his coat and grabbed his hat. "Sounds great to me, Buck!" He turned to say goodnight to the others and stopped when he noticed the look that came over Ezra's face as he stared down at his cards. It was almost... what the heck was the word he wanted? Wistful. If he didn't know better, JD would have thought the wilderness-hating gambler actually wanted to go with them. He nudged Buck and nodded slightly at Ezra to draw his attention to their friend's expression.
The other four men had been busy grumbling about their lousy hands as they discarded and hadn't seen what Buck and JD had. All four heads jerked up in surprise when Buck spoke.
"Why don't ya come with us, Ezra?" Buck heard the others snort and snicker in amusement, but his eyes never left the gambler's face... and he got his answer the minute Ezra looked up at him. Buck could read it loud and clear in those bright green eyes... Ezra wanted more than anything to go. He probably didn't understand why... but he wanted... no... needed... to go with them.
Ezra's face reddened slightly as he glanced at the others and saw their certainty that he would refuse. Why *wouldn't* they think that... he'd always turned away any attempts to include him before... and it was a well-known fact that he was not a lover of the great outdoors... but to his own amazement, he found that he truly did want to do this.
JD saw him hesitate and came to the same surprising conclusion that Buck did... Ezra actually wanted to go with them. "Come on, Ezra... say yes. I need someone along to help me keep an eye on Buck... you know how he always seems to find trouble no matter where we go!"
The others laughed as Buck began indignantly protesting the Kid's remarks, and Ezra gave JD a look of gratitude for taking some of the attention off of him.
Buck also realized what JD was doing and was proud of him for noticing that Ezra needed a little help. "That settles it... you're goin' with us, Ezra. I can see I'm gonna need a witness in case somethin' goes wrong... someone with some smarts who can testify that it ain't me that's always gettin' his ass in a sling."
Ezra couldn't help but smile as JD took a playful swipe at Buck with his hat before grumbling something about old age and faulty memories. "Well, I see that I have no choice but to accompany you and make sure you *both* stay out of trouble. Someone with some maturity obviously needs to be there to referee these petty disagreements of yours."
Nathan stared at Ezra... not sure he'd heard right. "*You* leave the comfort of that feather bed of yours before noon? To go fishin'? I'll believe that when I see it." He laughed and shared a knowing look with Vin and Josiah. "I'd be willin' t' bet good money that you'll still be up in your room snorin' when those two are halfway t' that new fishin' hole of Buck's."
Chris glanced at Ezra and saw a small look of hurt appear briefly in his eyes before it changed to one of grim resolve. He carefully spread his cards out on the table to reveal another winning hand before standing and gathering up the small pile of money that he'd taken from his friends during the game. Slipping five dollars out of the money he held, Ezra tossed it down in front of the healer.
"Well, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra held Nathan's eyes as he waited to see what he'd do. "Were you serious about that bet?" A small smile tugged at his lips as Vin, Josiah and Nathan all quickly dug into their pockets.
Vin looked up at Ezra and shrugged as he laid his money on top of the pile. "Sorry, Pard... that's just too good t' pass up."
"He's right, Brother Ezra... nothing personal, but given your aversion to mornings, I'd say this was one bet we're sure to win." Josiah grinned up at the gambler as he threw his money on the table and was relieved to see him smile back.
Chris watched Ezra carefully as the younger man tucked the remainder of his winnings and his cards into his jacket pocket and draped it carefully over his arm. He seemed to be the only one at the table who had noticed the look that had passed over Ezra's face at Buck's invitation. The Southerner had changed considerably since his accident, and the closeness he still felt toward Buck was apparently stronger than any of them had realized.
"Sorry, boys. I'm bucking the odds this time... my money's on Ezra." The others... including Ezra himself... stared at Chris in amazement as he tossed a half eagle into the pot. The gunslinger raised his eyes to the gambler's and saw the slight nod of thanks before he turned away and headed for the stairs leading up to his room.
"I'll trust you to keep my share of the winnings in your safekeeping until I return from our little excursion, Mr. Larabee." Ezra paused with his back to the room. "And... thank you."
Chris watched as the gambler slowly made his way up the stairs and then turned to look at Buck and JD. He saw them glare at the three other men still seated at the table before nodding gratefully at him. They knew how much Chris's confidence in him had meant to Ezra, and were positive that nothing would keep the stubborn Southerner from joining them on their trip now.
Buck threw his arm over JD's shoulders and steered him toward the door. "Come on, Kid... we've got some extra packin' to do. Ya still got that fishin' pole ya gave Ezra for Christmas?" JD nodded and allowed the older man to propel him out into the street.
"Sure do! This is gonna be great, Buck!" JD smiled hugely at the prospect of spending the next week with his two closest friends. "We'll make sure Ezra has such a great time, he'll forget how much he hates being outdoors!"
Buck shook his head at the Kid's enthusiasm and hoped he was right. He knew getting Ezra to even tolerate nature would be an accomplishment... getting him to actually enjoy it would probably take a miracle.
Buck and JD had Ezra's horse, Rebel, saddled for him and were just going to sneak up to his room to make sure he hadn't overslept, when he finally staggered into the livery. His eyes were bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, and he was in the process of trying to smother a huge yawn, but at least he was there.
"Lord, Ezra... did you get any sleep at all?" Buck took his saddlebags from him and threw them over the horse's back, chuckling at their weight. Apparently Ezra wasn't planning on roughing it anymore than he had to... it felt like he'd packed everything he owned into the two bags.
Ezra smiled ruefully and shook his head as he took his horse's reins from JD and followed the other two men out into the street. "I didn't dare even close my eyes... not if I wanted to win that bet."
Buck slapped Ezra on the shoulder before mounting up. "Don't worry, Pard... we weren't about to let you oversleep. We're expectin' ya to buy us dinner with your winnings when we get back. After a week of eatin' our own cookin', we'll all be ready for a good meal."
JD grimaced in disgust as he bounced up onto Ranger's back, patting the bay's neck while he waited for Ezra to hoist himself up into his saddle. "Geez, Buck... after eatin' your cookin', even a bowl of cold mush would taste good."
Buck grinned at the young sheriff as he nudged his horse into a walk and started down the street. "Well, I guess you better do all the cookin' then. Besides, it's only fair... since I'll be catchin' all the fish."
Ezra shook his head as he fell in behind his two bickering friends. He'd known his statement about refereeing their arguments hadn't been an exaggeration, but he'd at least hoped they'd make it out of town before they got started. Glancing over at the saloon, Ezra saw Chris standing in the window watching them. He tipped his hat at the gunslinger and grinned as they rode past.
Ezra had seen Chris sitting in a corner of the darkened saloon as he'd hurried out, and had known the older man was there to make sure he made it up on time. The gambler knew he hadn't done it just to protect his share of the pot, but rather had wanted to protect Ezra from the unmerciful ribbing he'd have been subjected to had he lost the bet. He only hoped Chris knew how much he appreciated the gesture.
Chris watched the three men ride out of town, laughing softly at the expression on Ezra's face as Buck and JD exchanged insults. He had a feeling Ezra was going to definitely earn the money he'd won before the week was over.
Chris wasn't the only one watching as the three men headed out. Josiah stood in the doorway of the church, Nathan peered out the window of the clinic, and Vin watched from the shelter of his wagon. All three men had been ready to awaken Ezra if it had looked like he wasn't going to be able to get up on his own. Even though they'd joked about the idea of him going fishing and his inability to rise before noon, they were all aware of how much he needed to have this time with Buck and JD... and they were all perfectly willing to forfeit the bet to make sure he got it.
Buck and JD rode on either side of Ezra, grinning and watching him carefully, ready to grab him if he started to slip off his horse. The gambler had dozed off and on... mostly on... since they'd left town just after dawn. It was almost noon and Ezra was still slumped in the saddle, snoring softly, his head bobbing gently in rhythm with Rebel's movements.
"Are we gonna stop for lunch soon? I'm gettin' hungry, an' I think Ezra needs some coffee." JD laughed and grabbed Ezra's arm as he started to slide sideways, pushing him carefully back towards Buck until he was more or less upright again. The Southerner never even stirred.
Buck shook his head as he turned Babe off the trail into a small clearing. "Damn... I knew ol' Ezra was a heavy sleeper, but this beats all I ever seen." Buck dismounted and tethered his horse to a low hanging branch before returning to Ezra's side. He was just reaching up to rouse the gambler when JD suddenly slapped him on the shoulder and yelled his name.
The effect was instantaneous. Ezra's head flew up and he jerked away from the younger man, scrabbling for his gun as his sleep-fogged eyes roved wildly around trying to locate his imagined attackers. His sudden movement to the right upset his precarious balance and he tumbled out of the saddle, landing squarely on Buck and taking him to the ground with him.
"Oof!" Buck felt the breath forced out of his body as he bore the full brunt of Ezra's weight. He lay pinned beneath the Southerner, gasping for air as he struggled to get his fingers wrapped around Ezra's gun hand before he mistakenly shot JD. "Ezra... easy now... it's just the Kid. For God's sake... don't... shoot."
JD sat frozen in his saddle, staring down the barrel of Ezra's gun, not daring to even move much less say anything to the still confused gambler.
Ezra lay on his back on top of Buck, breathing heavily as he tried to figure out what the hell was happening, and why the ladies man was whispering in his ear.
"Ya with me, Ezra?" Buck had finally gotten a grip on the gambler's fingers and had turned the gun away from JD, while wrapping an arm around the smaller man to stop his struggling. He waited until he felt Ezra nod and then released him... sucking in precious air as the Southerner finally rolled off of him.
JD visibly relaxed when he saw the two men separate and shot a look of apology at Ezra, who had managed to push himself up into a sitting position. The gambler sat with his arms propped on his bent knees, shaking his head slightly, and still looking a bit dazed and confused.
"Geez, Ezra... I was just tryin' to wake ya up an' let ya know we were stoppin' for lunch. I didn't mean to scare ya like that." JD finally quit shaking enough to get down, and taking Rebel's reins, tied both horses off next to Buck's.
Ezra took a deep breath to steady himself and clasped Buck's proffered hand, allowing the older man to pull him to his feet. "Entirely my fault, Mr. Dunne... I shouldn't have been sleeping." He noticed Buck rubbing gingerly at his ribs and frowned. "Are you alright, Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck grinned and nodded his head. "Yeah, but ya sure got a bony elbow there, Ezra... and... would ya mind drinkin' some coffee or somethin'? I think we'd all be safer if ya stayed awake for the rest of the ride."
"I do believe you may be right, Mr. Wilmington." The gambler dusted himself off and started gathering up wood for a small fire, while the other two men pulled the fixings for lunch out of their packs.
After eating and making sure Ezra consumed a suitable amount of the purposefully strong brew Buck had made, they continued on their way, arriving at their destination just before dusk.
Buck hadn't exaggerated... it was quite a lovely place... but by that time the most any of them were up to was a cursory look around, a quick meal and sleep. It wasn't long before Buck, JD and Ezra had their bedrolls arranged around the campfire and had settled down for a good night's rest. They were soon fast asleep, and their gentle snores joined the other night sounds that filled the air around them.
Ezra awoke with a start and lay unmoving, buried in his bedroll, as he strained to hear the sound that had pulled him from his peaceful slumber. He finally convinced himself that it must have been a dream and had started to turn over to hopefully get a few more hours of sleep, when he realized he needed to get up and answer a rather urgent call of nature.
Ezra threw back the blanket and was just pushing himself up off the ground, when an ungodly screech filled the night. The gambler instinctively flexed his right arm to activate his derringer, and then groaned when he realized that he'd left the device home. He groped behind him for one of his other guns as his eyes continued to scan the dark around the camp, searching for whatever hideous creature was about to attack them. Once he had his Colt in his hand, he risked a glance at Buck and JD and was amazed to find that they hadn't even stirred.
When the sound wasn't repeated after several minutes, Ezra felt his heartbeat slowly return to normal and finally was able to relax a little. He stared over at his two friends who slept on the other side of the campfire, blissfully unaware of anything going on around them, and decided he should move his bedroll nearer to them. After all, someone needed to protect them in case that horrid animal decided to return. At least, that was the reason he'd give in the morning when they found he'd moved to their side of the camp. Ezra certainly wasn't about to admit to them that he'd been unnerved by the sound he'd heard.
Keeping his gun in hand and one wary eye cocked toward the shadows that surrounded them, Ezra quietly slid his gear around the fire and positioned himself between Buck and JD. He made sure his weapon was in easy reach before settling himself down amongst the blankets and closing his eyes. Exhaustion quickly overtook him and he drifted off into a restless sleep.
JD was the first to awaken the next morning. Stretching and yawning, he rolled over onto his back and was surprised to find Ezra lying between him and Buck. The gambler was snuggled down in his bedroll, snoring softly, his gun resting on the ground next to his head.
JD got up and carefully moved the weapon out of Ezra's reach before moving around to crouch beside Buck. He gently shook the older man's shoulder and placed his hand over his mouth to keep him from speaking too loudly and waking the Southerner. As soon as Buck opened his eyes, JD removed his hand and motioned toward Ezra.
Buck turned and smiled when he saw Ezra curled up near him. "What the heck is he doin' over here?"
"I don't know... I woke up an' there he was. I got smart this time though... I took his gun before we try wakin' 'im up." JD grabbed one of the saddlebags and started pulling supplies out of it. It wasn't long before the welcome smell of coffee filled the air. "Ya don't suppose he had one of them flashbacks Nathan said he's been havin', do ya?"
Buck stared at Ezra a moment and then shook his head and grinned. "Naw, I don't think it's that. I sorta remember hearin' a screech owl hollerin' durin' the night. You know Ezra... he ain't real familiar with the wildlife in these parts... it mighta scared 'im enough to make 'im decide he was safer over here with us."
JD frowned and shook his head. "I didn't hear anything."
Buck sighed as he pushed himself up off the ground. "That's because you're the only person I know who can sleep harder than ol' Ezra there." He glanced back down at the gambler as he spoke and an evil grin slid across his face.
JD saw it and started backing away from the man still sleeping by the fire. "Buck... what are you thinkin' a doin'? You go rilin' Ezra this early in the mornin' an' he'll be miserable to be around all day. An' remember what happened yesterday. I don't think he's ready to go through that again... an' neither am I."
"I'm just fixin' to wake 'im up, that's all. Wouldn't want 'im to miss out on a minute of this glorious mornin', ya know. 'Sides... you're safe this time, ya already got his gun." Buck rubbed his hands together and chuckled as he bent over the gambler and gave an especially loud imitation of the sound that had spooked Ezra the night before. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he let out a shriek that had JD grabbing his ears and backing even farther away. The results were even better than the fun-loving gunslinger could have hoped for.
"Jesus God Almighty!!" Ezra bolted upright, throwing his blankets off and groping wildly around him for his gun, his light green eyes impossibly huge in his pale face as he searched for the source of the scream. Suddenly his frantic motions stopped and his eyes narrowed, glittering dangerously as he saw both Buck and JD rolling on the ground, clutching their sides and howling with laughter.
Ezra sent them both a withering look as he slowly gained his feet. He stood there carefully straightening his clothes while he tried to discreetly gain control over his still shaking limbs and rapidly beating heart. He wanted to express his total disgust with his friends' infantile behavior, but didn't trust his voice enough yet to even attempt it.
Buck sat up and struggled to stop laughing while tears streamed down his face. "Lordy, Ezra... I ain't never seen you move that fast before... damn... your face..." Try as he might, the ladies man just couldn't stop... everytime he thought he'd gotten some control, another burst of laughter forced its way out. That is until JD suddenly swore and scrabbled toward the fire.
Ezra and Buck both looked at the boy and added their curses to his when they saw him digging at the fire with a long stick, trying desperately to pull what remained of the gambler's now blazing blankets out of the flames.
As the two men hurried to help the boy, Buck shot Ezra a look of apology and opened his mouth to try and smooth the gambler's obviously ruffled feathers, but instead erupted in an uncontrollable fit of giggling. "Damn... I'm sorry, Ezra. I just can't... get the look on... your face... out of my mind."
"Since it has occurred twice now, am I to assume that this is the sort of rude awakening I can expect *every* time I fall asleep?" Ezra's voice dripped with sarcasm and the glare he aimed at the other man would have frozen anyone else's heart, but the scoundrel was having too much fun to even notice it. "I'm glad I could be such a source of entertainment for you this early in the day, Mr. Wilmington. I sincerely hope for your sake, however, that the temperature doesn't drop too far tonight... since you *will* be graciously offering me the use of your blankets."
Buck continued to beat the still smoldering blanket he held against the ground as he looked quickly at Ezra to see if he was serious. He was. "Now, Ezra... I'll share 'em with ya, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna freeze my butt off just 'cause you overreacted and threw yours in the fire."
Ezra stood with his hands on his hips, staring indignantly at the older man. "Well, you certainly don't expect me to make do with just one... you know I have a low tolerance for the cold." The gambler saw a flash of doubt cross Buck's smiling face and pushed his advantage home. "After all, what will Mr. Jackson say if I return home sick as a result of one of your practical jokes?"
That was all it took for Buck. Just the idea of having to sit through one of Nathan's angry tirades had him searching for a way out of his predicament. "Ya got a point there. JD... you can give Ezra one of your blankets, too."
JD's mouth dropped open as he stared incredulously at the lanky gunman. "One a mine?! Why do I have to share with 'im... I wasn't the one that scared 'im half to death an' made 'im throw his blankets in the fire!"
Buck calmly explained his reasoning and gave JD a look that warned him not to argue. "Yeah, but ya sure didn't try an' stop me... an' ya know how my jokes always turn out, so you're partly to blame, too."
Knowing he'd never win the argument, JD gave up, and muttering angrily to himself, set about brewing a new pot of coffee, since Ezra's blankets had knocked the first one over.
After a hot breakfast and several mugs of the Kid's rather strong coffee, Ezra's frazzled nerves finally began to smooth out. Now he could set his mind to plotting a suitable way to exact retribution against Buck.
Josiah and Nathan were just finishing up their breakfast when Chris walked in, and after grabbing a mug of coffee, sank wearily down on one of the chairs.
"Just back from patrol?" Josiah asked as he gathered up his and Nathan's plates and carried them over to the bar, swapping them for the pot of coffee Inez held in her hand.
Chris shook his head and took a sip from the steaming mug. "Vin took Buck's turn at patrol this morning, but I might as well have gone... couldn't sleep anyway."
Nathan glanced at him and frowned. "You feelin' alright?"
"Yeah... I just woke up early this mornin' and couldn't get back to sleep." Chris stretched, leaned back in his chair and let his eyes slide closed.
"Worried about our three absent brothers?" Josiah asked. He saw Nathan nodding in silent agreement out of the corner of his eye and smiled. Poor Chris... those three were a constant thorn in his side. Buck and JD were always involved in some sort of boisterous, overly-loud horseplay, driving the unusually reserved and silent Chris to distraction. And as for Ezra, the contentious gambler spent most of his time disagreeing with everything the man said. At times, it seemed he was on a suicidal mission to see just how far he could push Larabee before he erupted.
Chris shook his head, but Nathan and Josiah both saw him hesitate first. "They're just fishin', what kind of trouble could they get into?"
Noticing the utter silence that surrounded him, Chris opened his eyes and stared at the two other men. Both had huge grins on their faces and were slowly shaking their heads.
"Did you forget who we're talkin' 'bout?" Nathan chuckled as he poured another round of coffee in their mugs. "Those three attract trouble like a dog does fleas."
Chris heaved a sigh and pushed himself up out of the chair. "Well, maybe we'll get lucky this time and they'll all come home in one piece."
Josiah called after Chris as he headed out of the saloon. "You hold onto that dream, Brother... maybe it'll help you make it through the next few days." Nathan and he both burst out in surprised laughter as their leader turned, grinned, and gestured rudely in their direction before exiting the saloon.
Once they'd cleaned the campsite up... washing the few dishes they'd dirtied and disposing of Ezra's ruined blankets... Buck decided it was high time they started having some fun. Grabbing the poles and the bait, they headed down to the pond.
"Here ya go, Ezra... this one's yours." JD tried to hand Ezra one of the two poles he was carrying, and glanced nervously at Buck when the Southerner just stared at it apprehensively.
"Ya okay, Ezra?" Buck put his hand on the younger man's shoulder and shook him gently when he didn't respond. "Ezra?"
Ezra blinked several times and finally looked at Buck. "Hmm? Oh... yes... I'm fine... it's just..." He hesitated as he looked back at JD and then at the pole, finally reaching out a tentative hand to take it. <What the hell is wrong with me? It's just a fishing pole.> Ezra knew they were staring at him... wondering what was wrong, but he just couldn't quite shake the feeling that this ordinary cane pole held some special meaning for him. "Thank you, JD."
JD felt a warm feeling wash over him at Ezra's quiet words, and smiled softly as pleasant memories of Christmas with their Little One flowed through his mind. "Your welcome, Ezra... I hope it's lucky for ya."
Ezra nodded and followed the two men as they continued on to the spot they'd picked out to try first. The grass covered bank sloped gently down to the water's edge and had plenty of room for them to spread out.
JD quickly fastened a worm on his hook and then held the container out to Ezra. He waited impatiently as the gambler stared uncertainly at him and then at the can. "Well, come on, Ezra... hurry up an' dig one outta there. I wanna get my line in the water so I can get a head start on Buck."
Buck had settled on a spot a few yards to the right and chuckled as he watched Ezra hesitantly stick one long slender finger in the can and poke gingerly at the squirming mass of worms. He grimaced at the slimy feeling and jerked his hand away causing JD to sigh in exasperation.
"Dang, Ezra... it's just a little ol' worm... it ain't gonna bite ya for cryin' out loud." JD forced the can into the older man's hand and walked off. "Ya ain't never gonna learn how to fish if ya can't even bait your own hook."
Buck watched Ezra blush slightly in embarrassment and took pity on him. "Come on over here, Ezra... I'll help ya with it." He knew the gambler was feeling out of his element and was a little anxious about not having his usual control over the situation. Buck realized he'd need some gentle nudging to get him to relax and enjoy the new experience.
Buck stood as Ezra slowly walked over, and after taking the pole and can out of his hands, began tugging on the bright red jacket he wore. "First of all, ya gotta get shed of this coat... you're gonna scare the fish away."
Ezra scowled at Buck and pulled away from his grasping hands, but did, after some muttered complaints, finally remove the colorful garment and carefully lay it on the grass behind him.
"Now roll up those fancy sleeves so's the ruffles don't get in your way." Buck grinned at him and waited patiently for Ezra to finally relent and comply with his request.
It took a minute and a few more choice comments, but Ezra eventually did as the tall gunman asked. "Anything else about my appearance that isn't suitable? After all, I wouldn't want to offend the fish's sensibilities with my ignorance of the proper attire for angling."
Buck stared at him, his eyes roving up and down the smaller man's form speculatively. "Well, to really look like a fisherman, ya need to pull off those boots an' roll up your pants legs, but since it's a bit nippy this mornin', we'll wait til it warms up some 'fore we make ya do that."
Ezra blushed at the other man's intense scrutiny and then frowned. "Let's not push it, Mr. Wilmington. This is as casual as my appearance is going to get." Hoping to change the subject, Ezra picked up the tin can and held it out to Buck. "Now if you would be so kind as to place one of these poor unfortunate creatures on my hook for-"
But Buck pushed the can back toward Ezra and shook his head. "Nope... JD's right on that one. Ya gotta learn how to do this for yourself. Now pluck one a them outta there an' let's get ya started fishin'."
Ezra took a deep breath, and steeling himself against the unpleasant task he was about to perform, reached into the can and reluctantly pulled one of the worms out. He stood in front of Buck trying to ignore the mirth he saw sparkling in his friend's eyes, and looked from the worm wriggling in his grasp, to the hook dangling from his other hand. "Now what?"
Buck heaved an exaggerated sigh of exasperation and grinning hugely at Ezra's obvious discomfort, wrapped his hand around the gambler's and showed him how to impale the worm on the hook. He saw the younger man's face pale slightly as the hook slid effortlessly through the soft body and felt him flinch as the creature's movements became more frantic, and instantly regretted making him do something he was so obviously uncomfortable with. "Don't worry, Ezra... it gets easier after awhile."
Ezra shot Buck a doubtful look, but managed a small smile. "I sincerely doubt that, Mr. Wilmington, but I'm determined to master the art of fishing if for no other reason than to prove everyone who thought I wouldn't do this, wrong."
Buck was proud of the Southerner and his grin grew even wider as he realized that Ezra's caring what the others thought about him was just one more little step forward he'd made since his accident. He gave Ezra a pat on the back, and then laying his arm across the smaller man's shoulders, led him over to where his own pole was propped up on some rocks.
Buck showed Ezra how to toss his line out in the water and then he set the pole down next to his. Then after settling himself back in his former spot, he smiled up at Ezra and patted the ground next to him. "An' here's the best part of fishin', Ezra. Sit yourself down here on the grass, lean back, and just enjoy the feel of the sun beatin' down on ya while we wait for the fish to decide they're hungry."
Ezra hesitated for only a second before doing as Buck ordered. Leaning back on his elbows and letting his eyes wander lazily around their peaceful surroundings, he was surprised to find himself relaxing and actually beginning to enjoy himself.
JD glanced over at the other two men and frowned slightly. Buck and Ezra sat side by side on the sunny bank, talking quietly and sharing an occasional laugh over something one or the other of them said.
"What ya laughin' at?" JD watched Buck give Ezra a friendly slap on the shoulder before grinning over at him.
"Nothin', Kid... just talkin' 'bout a little adventure ol' Ezra here had over in Eagle Bend once. Gettin' any bites?" Buck made the inquiry but didn't wait to hear JD's response... he turned his attention back to Ezra instead. Soon the two were laughing again, totally ignoring their young companion.
JD felt a sudden resurgence of the jealousy he'd experienced when Ezra was injured and monopolizing all of Buck's time. He tried to ignore it, telling himself he'd been just as eager to have the gambler come along as Buck had, but he hadn't realized how special these fishing trips with the ladies man were to him until just now. If Ezra hadn't been with them, that would have been him sitting there beside Buck.
Suddenly JD felt a sharp tug on the pole he held and his envious thoughts stopped as he stood and moved toward the water. "Got one, Buck!"
Buck got to his feet and started toward JD, but stopped when Ezra grabbed his leg as he passed and pointed at his own pole. "Um... Mr. Wilmington? Is my line supposed to be behavin' in that manner?"
Buck looked down and saw the end of Ezra's pole bobbing wildly as his line zipped back and forth through the water. "Damn, Ezra! Grab it... looks like ya got a whopper on there!"
Ezra scrambled to his knees and wrapped his hands around the butt of the fishing pole, gripping it tightly as he struggled to get to his feet. "Now what?!" He was amazed at how strong the fish was and found himself having to dig his heels into the soft ground to keep from being pulled down the bank.
Buck slapped him on the back and laughed at the combined look of delight and astonishment that appeared on the gambler's face. "Ya gotta play 'im, Ezra... wear 'im down before ya can jerk 'im outta the water. Just hang onto that pole an' let 'im swim around some."
Ezra laughed and shook his head as he felt the muscles of his arms straining against the pull of the fish. "I'm not sure which one of us is goin' to tire first, Mr. Wilmington... but I certainly hope it's the fish!"
JD finally got his fish up on the bank and grinning broadly, held it up in the air to show the other two men. "Hey, Buck! Let's see ya beat this one!"
Buck glanced at the young man and grinned back. "Nice one, Kid... but I think Ezra's gonna have ya beat if he can get this one in. It's gotta be huge!"
JD let his arm drop to his side as his smile slowly faded. He watched Buck cheering Ezra on as he fought his fish and a spark of determination flickered in his dark brown eyes. After removing his catch and tossing it up on the bank, JD quickly baited his hook and tossed it back out in the water, then waited impatiently to receive his next bite.
It took a few minutes for Ezra to wear his opponent out, but finally Buck told him it was time and with a quick upward jerk of the pole, the gambler managed to land his first fish.
Tipping his hat back on his head, Ezra stood wiping the sweat off his forehead and grinning down at his prize. Buck was happy to see that look of accomplishment and pride appear on Ezra's face... it was one that seldom graced the Southerner's countenance except when he was playing cards. "Biggest damn bass I've seen in a long time! We'll be eatin' good tonight."
Ezra watched as Buck removed the hook, and after retrieving JD's fish, strung them both on a length of rope they'd brought with them. Ezra raised his eyebrows questioningly as Buck then tied it tightly to a nearby bush and dropped it back in the water.
"Keeps the fish fresh til we get ready to eat it," Buck explained, then picked up the can of worms and held it out to Ezra. "Now get some more bait on that hook an' see if ya can catch another one. Now that ya got the hang of it, we can start the bet."
"Bet?" Ezra's bright green eyes positively glowed with the mention of the word 'bet', and the task of handling the bait seemed to become considerably less repulsive.
The ladies man could see he had Ezra's attention with that one. They all knew the best way to get the gambler interested in any activity was to somehow involve money in it. "Yep. Five dollars on whichever one of us brings in the biggest fish while were here." Buck pulled his line in, checked his worm, and threw it back out before turning back to see how the gambler was faring with baiting his hook. He grinned at how much quicker Ezra seemed to be moving now. "See... I told ya it got easier."
Ezra snorted derisively and scowled at the older man, but did manage to get the worm on and his line out in the water without any help. This little outing of theirs was becoming quite profitable. Two bets... one of which he'd already won, and the other that he was positive he *would* win thanks to the fish he'd just pulled in.
Taking one last look at his catch swimming around at the end of the rope, Ezra smiled and rubbed his hands together. "Looks like I've got a slight edge on that bet so far."
Buck shook his head and grinned. "Nope. That was your practice fish."
"What?! That hardly seems fair, Mr. Wil-"
"That's the rules, Ezra. 'Sides... Buck had to help ya with that one... baitin' your hook, takin' the fish off... ya gotta do it all yourself if you're gonna be in on the bet." JD just laughed at the dirty look he received from the Southerner as he jerked his pole and tossed a large fish up on the bank. "An' from the looks of this beauty, you got your work cut out for ya!" The youth held his catch up in the air and grinned over at the other two men. "Check this one out, Buck! That five dollars is gonna be mine, just you wait an' see!"
Buck ambled over, handed the boy the bait can, and then gave him a congratulatory slap on the back when he took the fish from him and felt how heavy it was. "Damn, JD... I think that's 'bout the biggest one you ever caught! Good job!"
Ezra scowled as he watched the older gunslinger carry the fish over and string it on the rope with the other two. "I thought you said we had to do it all ourselves, Mr. Dunne?"
Buck laughed and shook his head before JD could answer. "Not this part of it... at least, not since JD managed to lose a whole day's catch when he tied the damn rope around a dried out twig instead of a good sturdy branch. Them fish were gone like a shot, an' we ended up eatin' jerky for dinner that night."
JD paused in his search for the perfect worm long enough to glare at his friend. "Oh, come on, Buck... you know darn well that the only reason those fish got away was 'cause I'd caught so many whoppers it pulled the dang bush they were tied to right outta the ground!"
"Ha! *Told* so many whoppers is more like it! I'm the one who one the bet that trip... 'member? Ya griped all the way home an' I had to nag ya for a week in order to get my damn money." Buck nudged Ezra's shoulder and winked as he sat back down beside him. "Ya gotta watch that boy... he's terrible 'bout exaggeratin'... don't know where he gets it from."
Ezra chuckled and stretched out in the grass, crossing his arms behind his head and closing his eyes. "Undoubtedly one of the bad habits he's picked up from our Mr. Larabee... along with his propensity for tellin' bad jokes an' talkin' a person's ear off."
Buck couldn't help but laugh as JD struggled to come up with a suitable comeback.
JD's mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally gave up and mumbled, "Oh, shut up, Ezra" and threw himself down on the ground in a huff.
Buck knew the boy was pouting because they'd picked on him and figured it was time to do a little damage control before it developed into a full blown sulk and ruined the day completely.
JD refused to look up as Buck slowly lowered his long, lanky body down beside him. He knew the adies man was going to try to talk him out of being mad, but he wasn't ready for that yet. "Go on back over with your *friend*, Buck... you two seem to be havin' such a good time... I sure wouldn't wanna interfere none."
Buck winced when he heard the slight note of envy in JD's voice. <Lord... not again.> They'd been through all this before when Ezra had been suffering from his amnesia and had become quite dependant on Buck, cutting severely into the time he usually spent with the boy. He thought they had gotten through it, but apparently some residual jealousy was raising its ugly head in the face of his and Ezra's burgeoning friendship.
"Aw, come on, JD... let's not start this again. You wanted Ezra to come along just as much as I did." Buck regretted the words the minute they were out of his mouth.
"Start what? Don't matter to me if you wanna spend all your time with him." JD glanced at Buck and then stared out across the water.
Buck heard the feigned indifference in his voice, but the glimpse he'd had into the boy's dark brown eyes told a different story. He was definitely resenting the attention Buck was giving Ezra and just wasn't about to admit it.
Buck settled in beside the boy and after a few lame jokes and a shared laugh over Ezra's rude awakening that morning, soon had him back to his usual talkative self.
They took a short break at noon to grab a bite to eat, and then went right back to fishing. Buck had made the suggestion that a nap might feel good, but quickly changed his mind when the two younger men started teasing that he must be getting old. It wasn't long, however, before Buck wished he'd followed his first instincts and opted for that nap. Ezra and JD had launched themselves into a rather childish competition for his attention and were running him ragged as he tried to keep up with both of them.
Buck finally moved his pole to a spot between the two of them and settled himself down on the soft grass, determined not to move again until dinnertime. He'd just stretched himself out and closed his eyes when he heard Ezra once more call his name.
"What now, Ezra?" Buck tried unsuccessfully to hide the exasperation he was feeling as he wearily opened his eyes and glanced over at the gambler.
"Terribly sorry to bother you, Mr. Wilmington. Don't worry, I'll handle the problem myself." Ezra's injured tone of voice wasn't lost on the older man, and he instantly regretted losing his patience. The Southerner had actually seemed to be enjoying himself, and Buck certainly didn't want to be the one to ruin it.
JD looked up and saw Ezra tugging on his pole in frustration and stood to find out what the problem was. "You're tangled around that log out there, Ezra."
Ezra stopped and turned to stare at the younger man. "Why thank you, JD, for that astute observation. I don't suppose you have any brilliant suggestions on how to remedy the situation, do you?"
JD scowled at him, choosing to ignore the blatant sarcasm in his voice, and gestured toward the water. "Easy. Go untangle it."
Ezra's eyebrows shot up as he looked from JD to the partially submerged tree branch lying several yards from the shoreline. "You expect *me* to wade out there?"
JD shrugged his shoulders. "It's your hook... you lose it an' you can kiss that bet goodbye."
Ezra gave Buck what he hoped was a suitably pitiful look, and then grinned smugly at JD as the ladies man sat up and began pulling off his boots.
JD's mouth dropped open and he immediately began loudly protesting. "No fair, Buck! If it was me, you'd make me go out an' do it myself!"
Buck sat with one boot off and one on and stared thoughtfully at Ezra. "He's got a point, Pard. The water don't look very deep an' it ain't that cold... maybe ya better do it yourself."
Now it was JD's turn to look smug as Ezra glared at him. "Fine... but when I end up with pneumonia, *you* can explain it to Mr. Jackson."
Buck chuckled as he watched Ezra jerk his boots off. "Pneumonia?"
Ezra dipped his head and grinned sheepishly at Buck as he rolled up his pants legs. "Sounded good to me." Tossing his hat behind him on the ground, Ezra moved down the bank toward the water and stopped just at the edge of the pond. He risked one last hopeful look back at Buck, and then sighed resignedly when he saw the older man grin and motion for him to continue.
JD walked over and flopped down beside Buck and watched as Ezra hesitantly stuck one foot in the water testing the warmth, before wading slowly towards the log.
Ezra reached the submerged tree without incident and had his line untangled and tossed back up on the grass in a matter of minutes.
"See, Ezra... told ya there was nothin' to it." JD called out as the gambler turned and headed back.
Ezra looked up and had just opened his mouth to agree with the boy when his foot landed on a slime-covered rock and slid out from under him. Ezra flailed his arms and struggled to find better footing, but finally lost the battle and went flying backwards into the water.
"Damn!" Buck exclaimed as he and JD raced to the water's edge to make sure Ezra was alright.
Ezra had managed to get to his feet and was standing there gasping for breath as the water streamed off of him. His look of shock turned to one of disgust as he first looked down at his ruined clothes, and then over at the two men who had collapsed in helpless fits of laughter on the grass. Moving carefully, he made his way over to the bank, but stopped suddenly when he felt his feet start sliding backwards in the slippery mud.
Ezra stood with his fists planted angrily on his hips and glared at Buck and JD as they struggled to get control of themselves. "I understand how humorous you find my suffering, but do you suppose one of you could stop laughing long enough to help me out of here?"
Both men recognized the look in the gambler's flashing green eyes and knew it would be in their best interest to end the laughter and get him on dry land as fast as possible.
They quickly stood and reached down to clasp his wrists, pulling him up out of the water and onto the bank. "Sorry, Ezra... are ya okay?" Buck tried to help the gambler wipe away some of the water that still dripped off his face, but was slapped away as Ezra moved slowly up the slope toward their camp.
"Honest, Ezra... we're sorry for laughin' at ya... but ya just--" JD stopped and stared hard at the gambler's bare legs. "Oh shit."
Buck glanced over at JD when he heard him curse softly and then followed the direction of his gaze to see what he was upset about. He moaned when he spotted what JD had seen and moved quickly after the Southerner. "Um... Ezra... ya better hold up a minute."
Ezra just waved his hand at the two men and continued on, intent on retrieving some dry clothes and a towel from his saddlebags.
Buck reached him first and grabbed his arm, pulling him to a stop. "Ezra... wait."
The gambler turned and glared at Buck, jerking his arm out of his grasp. "What now, Mr. Wilmington... you and Mr. Dunne need one last laugh before I make myself presentable again?"
Buck glanced at JD and then looked anxiously at Ezra. "Now, Ezra... I don't want ya to panic, but... " Buck couldn't bring himself to say it and finally just pointed down at the younger man's shins and cringed slightly as he waited for the explosion.
Ezra stared at the ladies man for a moment, and then looked down to see what had him so agitated. His heart nearly stopped when he saw the slimy black shapes clinging to his bare skin.
Buck and JD watched as the blood drained from Ezra's face, leaving him as white as the fancy shirt he wore. Buck hurried to lay a calming hand on the smaller man's shoulder as he saw him start to shake. "Easy, Pard... it's just a few leeches... nothin' to get excited about. We'll have 'em off a ya in no time."
JD immediately began shaking his head and backing away. "Oh, no you don't, Buck... you're on your own with this one. Sorry, Ezra, but I ain't touchin' those nasty things!"
Buck grabbed his arm before he could get very far and pulled him back beside him. "Now you just hold on there, Kid... this ain't no different than them frogs an' lizards you an' Casey are always catchin'."
JD jerked his arm out of Buck's grip, but stayed where he was, knowing it was useless to try running. "They're salamanders, not lizards... an' handlin' those is a whole lot different than touchin' these disgustin' things. At least those others aren't gonna latch onto ya an' try an' suck the blood outta ya... hangin' on with those dirty, nasty mouths an'--"
Buck didn't believe it was possible, but Ezra's face turned even whiter as the horror of JD's vivid description registered in his brain. Ezra moaned low in his throat and began frantically digging at his legs in a desperate attempt to rid himself of the loathsome creatures.
"Oh, good goin', JD!" Buck grabbed the gambler's hands and held them when he saw that Ezra was scratching furrows in his own skin without even realizing it. "Stop it, Ezra! We're gonna get 'em off a ya, but ya gotta calm down!" He whipped his bandana off and threw it at JD. "Here... use this to grab 'em with if ya can't stand to touch 'em!"
Ezra stared into Buck's reassuring face and shuddered as he finally got control of himself.
Once he saw that Ezra was calming down somewhat and was willing to cooperate, Buck ordered him to remove his shirt and vest while he and JD began peeling the leeches off his legs and feet.
Buck glanced up and saw that Ezra's trembling fingers were having trouble maneuvering the fancy buttons. Standing up, the ladies man gently pulled the gambler's hands away and quickly unfastened them himself, then slipped the wet clothing off and dropped it on the ground. While he checked over Ezra's chest and arms, JD rose and did the same to his back... soothing the near panicking older man with his quiet assurance that they were almost done as he quickly peeled the last one off the nape of his neck.
"Got 'em all back here, Buck." JD moved around to stand in front of Ezra and exchanged a knowing look with the ladies man.
Buck saw Ezra heave a shaky sigh of relief and shook his head at him. "It's not over just yet, Pard. We gotta check *everywhere.*"
Ezra's brows furrowed as he tried to understand what Buck was talking about and then shot up as he followed the taller man's gaze down to his pants. His voice quavered as he whispered, "You can't be serious."
It was impossible to tell who was blushing harder... Buck, JD, or poor Ezra.
"Do ya need me to... um... I mean, I'll help if ya--" Buck looked at the ground, at the pond, anywhere but at Ezra as he offered his help... and was greatly relieved when Ezra refused him.
"No!" Ezra shook his head and backed away from the two men. "I'm sorry... I just... I'd prefer to do it myself."
Buck and JD didn't think the gambler's face could possibly get any redder and had to struggle not to laugh as Ezra hurried over behind some large bushes to finish checking himself.
The two men waited nervously, staring at the bush Ezra had disappeared behind. They heard the soft rustling of clothing being removed and then dead silence. Buck looked at JD and then back at the thick foliage. "Ezra? Ya alright?"
"Good Lord..." Ezra's soft, horror-filled, southern drawl drifted across the air to the two men.
Buck and JD heard the panic bubbling up in the gambler's voice and quickly tried to calm him. "Take it easy, Ezra... just pull it off. It ain't gonna do no permanent damage or nothin', so just calm down now."
"That's easy for you to say, Mr. Wilmington! You don't have one of these odious creatures attached to your... to your... good Lord..." Ezra was quickly approaching a state of complete hysteria when Buck finally got him convinced to pull it off by threatening to come in and do it himself.
Buck and JD shuddered when they heard Ezra's sharp yelp of pain a second before a black slimy- looking object came flying over the top of the bush.
They could hear Ezra's harsh breathing as he tried to get control of himself and finally his voice again... a little steadier this time, but still holding a slight tinge of nervousness. "Would one of you gentlemen mind retrieving a change of clothes for me? I'm growing quite weary of being damp."
"Get 'im some clothes, JD... and ya better grab that jar of salve Nathan sent along." Buck moved closer to the bush as JD hurried back toward camp. "Ezra? Are ya sure ya got 'em all? I mean, ya did look everywhere... right?"
"Believe me, Mr. Wilmington... I've made quite a thorough examination and I've disposed of every one of the nasty things." Ezra was quiet for a moment and when he spoke again his voice had a distinct tremble to it and Buck had to strain to hear him. "Um... I've noticed these little beasts have left behind some rather painful red welts on my skin. They're... they're not... poisonous... are they?"
Buck was really starting to feel sorry for the hapless gambler and hurried to reassure him. "Naw... the worst they can do is get infected, and Nathan sent some salve along with us that should take care of that. JD's bringin' it with your dry clothes. Just smear a nice thick coatin' of that on all those welts an' ya should be alright." Buck hesitated for a second and then made himself ask. "Ya gonna need any help with that, Ezra?"
"Only with the ones on my back, if you wouldn't mind, Mr. Wilmington... I can't quite reach those." Ezra shivered as the sun's warmth was stolen by a small bank of clouds moving slowly across the sky. "Is Mr. Dunne comin' with my fresh attire yet? I'm beginnin' to get a bit chilled."
"Yeah, he's right here, Ezra. Can ya reach around here so I can hand this stuff to ya?" Buck moved closer to the bush and waited for Ezra to appear, frowning worriedly when he got a close look at the gambler. "You okay, Ezra? Ya don't look too good."
Ezra flashed Buck a weak smile. "I'm quite alright, Mr. Wilmington." He shivered and hastened to amend that statement. "Well, I will be as soon as I'm clothed again."
Buck quickly passed Ezra his clothes and the jar of salve. "Make sure you really plaster that on those sores... an' leave your shirt off til I can do your back for ya."
Ezra smeared the healing cream over all the welts he could reach, and then hurriedly pulled on everything but his clean shirt. Gathering up his still damp clothes and the container of salve, Ezra finally moved back out to rejoin Buck and JD.
"Here Ezra, let me get those for ya." JD took Ezra's small pile of clothes and carried them back up to the camp for him, spreading them out on the surrounding bushes to dry.
Buck took the salve and very gently rubbed it over the angry red welts dotting Ezra's back. He felt the gambler gasp and flinch away when his fingers touched the one at the edge of his hairline and immediately apologized for hurting him. "Sorry, Ezra. You might wanna leave your shirt undone for awhile to keep it from irritating these sores."
"I believe you are right about that, Mr. Wilmington... they are rather sensitive at the moment." Ezra turned and glanced back at his fishing pole lying forgotten on the bank and then looked regretfully up at the older man. "Would you mind terribly if I just watched Mr. Dunne and yourself do the fishin'? I think I've had enough recreation for one day."
Buck handed Ezra the salve and moved toward the fishing gear. "It's gettin' near to dinnertime anyway... I think we'll just call it a day an' start fresh again tomorrow."
After his offer to help was rebuffed, Ezra moved slowly back toward the camp and the welcome warmth of the fire JD now had blazing. Once Buck got the gear stowed away, he and JD made short work of cleaning the fish they'd caught, and soon the delicious smell of their dinner cooking had all three men's mouths watering.
JD was in the middle of telling one of his long, drawn out jokes when Buck happened to glance over at Ezra. The Southerner was huddled close to the fire, his shirt held loosely around him as a meager form of protection against the evening chill. Buck watched as Ezra's gaze drifted down to his lap and a mighty shudder rippled through the slender form. Buck couldn't help it, he chuckled softly at the remembered sound of that softly drawled 'Dear Lord' as it announced Ezra's unpleasant discovery.
Ezra felt Buck's eyes on him and looked up just in time to catch the older man's unsuccessful attempt to smother a smile. "You find something humorous about my little *accident* this afternoon, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra tried to dredge up some anger at the ladies man for laughing at him, but just couldn't quite manage it. Thinking about it honestly, he knew he'd be laughing even harder if their situations were reversed.
Buck thought he was in trouble until he saw the smile tugging at the corner of Ezra's mouth. "Sorry, Ezra... I can't help it. I keep rememberin' the sound of your voice when ya found that last critter, it's just--"
"Dear Lord..." JD's voice floated across the fire to the two older men in a perfect imitation of Ezra's panicked discovery. Buck and Ezra stared at each other for a few silent moments, and just as JD was sure he was about to die at the hands of the gambler, the two men burst out into loud peals of laughter.
Ezra clutched at his sides as he struggled to stop laughing, but everytime he looked at Buck or JD, he started all over again. By the time they all got control of themselves, tears were rolling down their cheeks and they were gasping for breath.
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne. I believe I might just be able to sleep now." Ezra clapped JD on the shoulder as he walked towards the shadows surrounding the camp, intent on answering the call of nature one last time before settling down in his bedroll.
"Ezra." Buck tossed the jar of salve to the gambler as he turned around. "Ya better smear some more of this on those welts... ya don't want 'em gettin' infected."
Ezra glanced down at JD and pointed his finger at him when he saw the twinkle in the young man's eyes and saw his mouth start to open. "Don't push your luck, Mr. Dunne... or your liable to find a little surprise in your bedroll with you in the mornin'."
JD's mouth slammed shut at the look in Ezra's green eyes and he quickly rolled himself up in his blankets, carefully tucking in all the corners to make sure nothing could possibly get in. He smiled innocently up at the gambler, and breathed a sigh of relief when he smiled back and continued on his way.
Buck looked over at the young peacekeeper as he stretched out on his bedroll. "Smart move, JD... smart move."
Ezra soon returned, and after reluctantly allowing Buck to rub more salve across his back, climbed gingerly beneath his covers, shifting and squirming several times before he finally found a position that was comfortable.
It was only a matter of minutes before a peaceful quiet descended over the camp, broken only by the gentle snores of the three men stretched out around the fire.
The edges of the sky were barely beginning to lighten when Ezra awoke. He could tell without even opening his eyes that it was still dark and wondered angrily what the heck had roused him at such an ungodly hour this time. Keeping his eyes closed in the hopes that he might fall back to sleep, he did a quick mental check to see if he could figure out what was wrong. No urgent call of nature beckoned him. The welts were uncomfortable, but definitely not bad enough to force him from his sleep. He wasn't unduly hungry, thirsty, or cold. And yet he was still awake. Heaving a huge sigh, he came to the conclusion that he wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep until he figured out what the problem was.
Ezra slowly opened his eyes and immediately closed them again. <You didn't see that... you're just not awake yet... it was a trick of the flickering firelight.> Once he had himself convinced he had imagined the horror he'd thought he'd seen the first time, Ezra eased his lids open once more and felt his heart leap into his throat. <Dear Lord... what did I do to deserve this nightmare trip from hell?>
Ezra lay perfectly still, trying to control his breathing and fighting an incredible urge to scream as he stared at the biggest, nastiest looking spider he'd ever seen in his life... sitting squarely on his stomach staring back at him.
When several tense minutes had passed and the spider hadn't moved, Ezra began to relax as he realized that it was just another of Buck's practical jokes. "Mr. Wilmington, I will get you for this one." But his relief was short-lived when he saw the creature react to his voice and move several steps closer to his face.
Ezra immediately felt himself break out in a cold sweat as his heart began to thunder wildly in his chest. <Now what the hell do I do?!> He didn't dare move because the slightest vibration seemed to irritate his visitor. Ezra lay perfectly still for several minutes praying it would simply crawl away, but apparently it had decided it was quite comfortable where it was and had no intention of leaving.
Feeling disgusted with the fear he was experiencing, Ezra mentally shook himself and tried to convince the logical part of his brain that he was in no danger. <Come on, Standish... it's just a little spider. You know you're faster than it is... just reach up and sweep it off into the fire. Problem solved.> Ezra felt his stomach turn at the thought of actually touching the disgusting thing, but he knew the only other choice he had was waking Buck and JD up and requesting their help... and that was totally unacceptable. He'd provided them with enough laughs for this trip.
Flexing his fingers slowly and taking a breath to calm his nerves, Ezra carefully shifted his arm to prepare for the assault... and immediately froze. The spider had moved quickly across his stomach and now stood in the center of his chest, staring at him with its beady little eyes. Ezra swore he could almost see it licking its lips in anticipation.
Ezra groaned and briefly closed his eyes as that strange thought popped into his head. But all his resolve to handle things himself fled when he opened his eyes again and saw the nightmarish creature creeping closer.
Barely moving his lips and taking slow, shallow breaths... Ezra began calling for help. "Buck?!... JD?!..." His voice cracked as he whispered their names. Shifting his eyes to the right and then left of him, he checked to see if he was being heard and had to stifle a groan when he realized the two men hadn't even stirred. He hated to raise his voice, but he knew he was going to have to risk it if he was going to get any assistance in removing the vile beast.
"Buck! Wake up, damn it!" Ezra froze again when the spider moved and waited til it seemed to settle down before trying again. "Buck! JD!... Help!" Ezra felt the sweat slowly running down the sides of his face and had to fight an uncontrollable urge to reach up and wipe it away when it began to tickle the sensitive skin of his neck. "Come on, Buck... wake... up!"
Ezra could have cried in relief when he finally saw the ladies man stretch and sit up.
Buck sat scratching his head and looking around blearily. Something had woken him up... what the hell was it?
"Buck!!" Ezra whispered frantically as he saw the spider move again.
"Ezra? What the hell's the matter with ya? Ya sick or somethin'?" Buck stood up and stretched again before moving slowly over to where the gambler lay in his bedroll.
"Buck, stop! Don't come any closer!" Ezra's strangled plea caused the gunslinger to freeze in his tracks and quickly scan the prone form lying at his feet.
"What's goin' on, Buck? Somethin' wrong with Ezra?" JD stumbled sleepily to his feet and walked towards them, rubbing his eyes and completely missing the Southerner's warning.
Buck spotted the spider and finally understood the panicked look on Ezra's face. It was only a tarantula... granted, it was a damn big one... especially from the close up view Ezra was receiving... but it was still nothing that could seriously hurt him.
"JD... no... don't!" Ezra's voice was hoarse from the strain of trying not to shout at them, but got the youth's attention anyway, bringing him immediately to full wakefulness as he recognized the underlying current of fear that laced Ezra's words.
Looking down at the gambler, JD's eyes widened in shock. "Damn, Ezra... that's the biggest tarantula I've ever seen!"
Buck winked at JD before he slowly hunkered down beside the Southerner and bent closer, presumably to get a better look at Ezra's unwanted companion. "It ain't movin', Ezra... ya sure it's alive?"
Ezra's eyes widened another notch and his hands clutched helplessly at the bedroll as he watched Buck reach out a finger as if to touch the spider. "Jesus, Buck... stop!! Don't touch it!!"
Buck and JD both nearly lost it when they heard the alarmed squeak that popped out of Ezra's mouth, but somehow they managed to keep a straight face and continued on with their teasing.
JD took his cue from Buck and knelt down on the other side of the gambler, leaning in to whisper in his ear. "Whatever you do, Ezra... don't yell. If ya startle it, it'll jump straight at your face an' we'd never be able to stop it before it... before... well, just don't yell, okay?"
Ezra's face turned gray and the sweat began pouring off of him as he moaned and squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh God... just do somethin'... please?"
JD almost felt sorry for the stricken Southerner, but then he remembered all the practical jokes that Ezra had played on all of them and he decided it was only fair to pay him back when they got the chance.
Buck had to take a few deep breaths to keep from laughing and then, keeping his eyes on Ezra's face, started making suggestions to JD on how to remove it.
"I don't know what the hell we're gonna do... wait... how 'bout we take that stick over there an' give it a good hard whack? Is this a favorite shirt of yours, Ezra? Ah, hell... it shouldn't take but two or three washin's to get the stains out anyways." Buck fingered Ezra's sleeve and grinned at the greenish tint that now stained his cheeks.
"You can't do that, Buck! You might hurt Ezra!" JD patted the gambler's shoulder and felt him flinch as if he'd been bit. "Don't worry, Ezra... we'll figure out a painless way of gettin' that thing off a ya. An' just remember, it's only a spider... it ain't gonna hurt ya."
Ezra's eyes sprang open at JD's words and he stared first at the boy and then at the spider. 'It's only a spider... it ain't gonna hurt ya'... the words kept echoing in his head, but it was Vin's voice he heard speaking them. A strange image of he and Vin on a bed... a spider... those words... it all just kept jumbling up together in his mind. The confusion and fear, coupled with his anxiety over the spider was too much for him... his stomach began to roll, and he knew he needed to get out of there before he disgraced himself in front of his friends.
Buck stared hard at Ezra and saw his trembling increase and his eyes lose their focus as he stared at the spider. "Ezra? Talk to me, Pard. Answer me, please?" Suddenly he realized what was happening. "Shit." He quickly stood and began searching for something to use to remove the spider.
JD watched Ezra... his lips were moving, but he couldn't quite make out what the gambler was saying. "What's wrong with 'im, Buck?"
Buck walked around beside him and pulled him to his feet. "He's havin' a flashback, JD... the spider in the clinic. We gotta get that damn thing off of 'im right now."
JD realized Buck was right and after thinking for a minute, hurried over to a clump of large bushes that ringed the camp. Breaking off a large branch, he moved back beside Ezra and handed it to Buck. "Just lay the leafy end in front of the spider real careful like and when it crawls up on it, sweep it off onto the ground."
Buck knelt back down and laid a soothing hand on the gambler's shoulder. "Hang on, Ezra... I'll have it off of ya in just a second." Ezra's eyes never left the spider, but he did manage a small nod. Buck was relieved to see JD's plan work, and as soon as the spider was perched amongst the leaves, he whipped the branch off of Ezra's chest and flung it behind him into the fire.
Once he saw that the spider was gone, Ezra rolled quickly over onto his hands and knees and pushed himself up off the ground. Running and stumbling, he hurried off into the trees, and soon the sounds of him retching and gagging drifted back to the two men left in the camp.
Buck and JD were flooded with an overwhelming sense of guilt at what they'd done to their friend. Sure, Ezra would have done the same thing to them, but this was different. They weren't still recovering from a major trauma in their lives like the gambler was and would be better able to withstand the teasing.
Finally the stomach-turning sounds stopped and they heard Ezra making his way slowly back through the trees. They met him at the edge of the clearing and helped him back over to his bedroll. When he hesitated to sit down, Buck quickly reassured him that the spider was dead.
JD brought the gambler a wet rag and handed it to him, waiting patiently as he wiped his mouth and face before handing him the canteen. Ezra drank several swallows and then passed it back to the youth. Buck frowned when he saw how hard the gambler's hands were still shaking, and forced him to lay back down beside the fire.
"Ezra... we're real sorry. We was just teasin' ya an' never figgered it would turn out this way." Buck watched a flicker of surprise wash over Ezra's face as he stared up at him.
"You mean... you... it..." Ezra couldn't quite get the words out as he tried to digest the fact that he'd been the brunt of another one of Buck's pranks.
JD shook his head quickly as he realized what Ezra was thinking. "We didn't put it there... we just decided to have a little fun with ya when we saw it. Tarantulas aren't poisonous, Ezra... ya never were in any real danger. I'm sorry, too... but out here, where ya don't know as much, is the only chance we ever get to get back at ya without ya figurin' out what were doin'."
Buck chuckled at the startled expression that appeared on Ezra's face when he heard JD's honest excuse for tricking him.
Ezra struggled against the smile that tugged at his lips, but couldn't hide the glint of humor that shone in his expressive eyes. "Well, I think that was a back-handed compliment and I guess I have to thank you for that. However, I do feel that I should warn you two *gentlemen*... and I use that term loosely... I am keepin' track of all these little pranks of yours and will be exacting my revenge whenever the opportunity presents itself. Understood?"
Buck smiled and slapped Ezra's leg as he stood and moved back over to his own bedroll. "Oh, we understand alright, Ezra... an' we're gonna try real hard to make sure that opportunity never does show itself."
JD still wasn't sure he'd been forgiven and stared deep into Ezra's eyes before holding out his hand and quietly asking, "Still friends?"
Ezra looked up at him and felt his own little twinge of guilt for the petty way he'd been acting toward him with regards to Buck's attention. Reaching out to shake the youth's hand, he softly replied, "Always, JD... always."
After JD had walked away, Ezra rolled over on his side, pulling the blankets up around his chin. He smiled as a warm feeling of belonging swept over him. Ezra would never admit it to the two of them, but Buck's and JD's teasing had made him feel a part of their little family more than anything anyone else had ever done for him. Even though he'd never had any brothers of his own, Ezra knew this was exactly how they would behave... teasing, irritating, and sometimes even angering each other... but always there when they were needed. What more could a man ask for?
Ezra stared across the fire at the two men who he now considered his brothers, and felt himself finally relaxing, knowing that nothing would happen to him as long as they were near. The smile was still in place as he slowly drifted off to sleep.
Ezra became aware of the sun shining warmly on his face and wondered sleepily why no one had bothered to wake him yet. Buck and JD usually jumped at any chance they could find to drag him out of bed before he was ready... the earlier the better. Considering the last few rude awakenings he'd experienced, he was almost afraid to open his eyes. What did they have lying in wait for him this morning... a snake? Another disgusting insect?
Finally, he could stand the suspense no longer and carefully cracked open one eye, peering apprehensively around the campsite. Well, so far so good... nothing crawling on him... no loud shrieks to make him jump out of his skin. He looked to his left and was relieved to see his revolver lying beside him.
Deciding it was safe to move, Ezra pushed himself up into a sitting position and stretched. His back popped and cracked, reminding him of why he hated sleeping on the ground so much. Lord, but he missed the comfort of his feather bed.
Ezra took a deep breath of the fresh morning air to clear his sleep-fogged mind and stretched once more before finally climbing unsteadily to his feet. The aroma of JD's coffee slowly penetrated his senses and he felt his stomach roll uneasily at the thought of food or drink. He swallowed several times and breathed shallowly to try and control the feeling and wondered why his throat was a little sore. Then he remembered the aftermath of the spider incident he'd experienced during the night, and felt a blush of embarrassment wash over him.
Ezra poured himself a mug of coffee and forced himself to take a couple of sips, knowing he'd feel better once he got some of it down. As soon as his stomach began to settle, he performed his morning ablutions, feeling even more himself as he moved through his familiar routine. After refilling his mug and grabbing one of the biscuits that had been left for him, he wandered toward the pond in search of his friends.
JD looked up as he heard Ezra approaching and smiled. "Mornin', Ezra! Feelin' better?"
"Right as rain, Mr. Dunne." He gestured toward the fish Buck was adding to the stringer and frowned at JD. "Y'all tryin' to get a head start on me this mornin'?"
Buck laughed as he washed his hands off in the pond. "Here we are, tryin' to be helpful by lettin' ya sleep in, an' ya go an' accuse us of cheatin'. Now is that nice?"
Ezra thought a minute and then shook his head. "Not nice perhaps, but undoubtedly true." He finished off his biscuit and drained the last of his coffee, then smiled as he picked up his fishing pole. "But I'll forgive you since I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to wake up on my own with no unpleasant surprises for a change."
JD grinned up at him. "You're lucky, Ezra... I managed to talk Buck outta puttin' that snake in your bedroll this mornin'. I figured ya needed a little break after last night."
Ezra had to laugh at the look of guilt that flashed across Buck's face before he could stop it. He quickly changed it to one of pure innocence and began vehemently denying JD's accusations.
Ezra raised his hand and shook his head, forestalling the argument between the two men which would surely last all day if allowed to continue. "Give it up, Mr. Wilmington... your initial expression gave you away. Now shall we dismiss the incident since it never actually happened and concentrate instead on our bet? Which one of us, may I ask, is currently in the lead?"
Buck grinned and decided to quit while he was ahead. "You are, Ezra... an' I gotta admit, that last one ya caught is gonna be tough to beat. Why do ya think we wanted a head start this mornin'?"
Ezra finished baiting his hook... a task that, as Buck had assured him, had finally gotten easier... and threw his line out in the water. Settling on the ground near Buck, he grinned confidently over at his two companions. "Now, let the master show y'all how to catch a prize winning fish."
The rest of the morning was spent companionably arguing over whose technique was better, which bait worked best, and a multitude of other topics. By noon, the temperature had risen considerably and the fish had become sluggish... preferring to remain in the cooler water at the bottom of the pond rather than at the top, feeding.
"Well, boys... I think it's time to take a little break while the fish are nappin'. How 'bout we grab a quick bite to eat an' take a little walk. I got somethin' I wanna show ya that I think you're gonna like." Buck pulled in his line and stood up, waiting for the other two men to do the same before starting back up the slope toward camp.
Buck was beginning to regret even mentioning taking a walk... JD and Ezra had argued and competed for his attention almost every step of the way so far. At the moment, Ezra was walking beside him complaining for the hundredth time that JD had interrupted him and JD was walking backward in front of them, telling one joke after another... determined to make them laugh or die trying... which was very close to happening. The dying... not the laughing.
"Lord, boy... don't you ever run down?" Buck rubbed his forehead where an ominous throbbing was starting. Just what he needed, a headache. "And for God's sake, turn around! You're gonna trip over somethin' an' hurt yourself, an' then Ezra an' I'll have to cart your butt back to camp."
"Speak for yourself, Mr. Wilmington. I think the merciful thing to do in that instance would be to shoot him and put us out of our misery." Ezra grinned at JD as he dodged the rock the boy lobbed at him in retaliation.
"Ow! Damn it, JD!" Buck glared at the two men as he rubbed the knot now forming just over his left ear. JD may have missed his original target, but he unfortunately hadn't missed Buck. "You two had better quit actin' like a pair of two year olds before I use Ezra's idea an' shoot both of ya!"
"Oh, geez, Buck... I'm sorry! Are ya okay?" JD glared at Ezra who scowled back at him. "I was aimin' for Ezra... it's his fault for duckin'!"
"Well, excuse me for not standin' up there and takin' that rock like a man, JD... I don't know what I could have possibly been thinkin'." Ezra shook his head and glanced up at Buck. "I think you should order our young friend back to the camp, Mr. Wilmington. Maybe it would teach him a lesson and encourage him to act his age."
Buck narrowed his eyes and just stared at Ezra.
Ezra and JD could see that the older man had just about reached the end of his rope and wisely decided to stop talking.
Buck breathed a sigh of relief at the welcome quiet and prayed it would last at least for a little while.
It was only a little further down the trail when Ezra and JD became aware of a new sound penetrating the usual forest noises that had accompanied them on their walk.
They recognized it as the quiet rush of fast moving water and were pleasantly surprised when they rounded the next bend, to find themselves at the base of a small waterfall.
The three men stopped at the edge of the small clearing and stared around them, taking in the utter beauty of their surroundings. The grassy banks of the stream were shaded by the towering trees, while the sun shown down on the waterfall itself, producing an array of tiny rainbows in the glittering mist that surrounded it.
"Wow, Buck... it's... it's... beautiful." JD spoke in unusually hushed tones as he walked slowly toward the water. "It's like somethin' ya'd read about in a fairy tale."
Ezra followed behind him, his gaze roving around the little glade. He marveled at how the colors seemed so much more intense and the bird song so much sweeter than they would normally be. JD was right... there was something almost magical about it. He heard a rustling in the bushes to his left and turned to look, almost expecting to see a unicorn or some other mythical creature appear. Instead a small deer peeked out, calmly stared at them, and then slowly faded back into the shadows.
"I have to agree with our young companion... there is definitely something different... almost mystical... about this place." Ezra felt a soothing peace flow through him as he let himself sink down onto the velvety grass near the water's edge. Stretching his legs out and leaning back on his elbows, he closed his eyes and let the gentle cooling spray from the falls wash across his face. "Mmm... I do believe you may have stumbled across a piece of heaven, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck grinned and sat down beside Ezra, watching JD as he knelt by the stream and, cupping his hands, drank deeply of the cold, clear water. "I figgered ya'd like it here. Just seems to make ya forget about your troubles, don't it?"
Ezra squinted up at Buck and grinned back at him. "Troubles? What troubles?"
JD came up beside them, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Boy, that water's good." He placed his fists on his hips and stared down at the two older men. "What are ya doin' just layin' there... don't ya wanna explore some? Looks like there might be a cave behind the waterfall... who knows what all's in there."
Buck and Ezra looked at each other and then up at JD. "Sorry, Kid... we're just gonna sit here an' enjoy the peace and quiet. Why don't you check it out an' let us know what ya find."
JD peeled off his coat and tossed it and his hat down beside the two men. Shaking his head as he walked away, JD mumbled just loud enough for them to hear, "Must be hell to get old" and then grinned over his shoulder at them before running off toward the falls.
Ezra shook his head in amazement. "Doesn't that boy ever get tired?"
"Ya know... if I wasn't so damn old an' wore out, I'd go after 'im an' make 'im pay for that last crack." Buck sighed and stretched out beside Ezra in the grass. "But I just ain't got the energy for it."
They watched JD climb around on the rocks, disappearing for a short time behind the waterfall before coming back out and shaking his head at them in an apparent indication that he'd found nothing of interest.
"Mr. Wil-- um... Buck... I've been wantin' to thank you for askin' me to accompany you and JD on this little trip. I realize it's usually just the two of you, and I appreciate your including me this time." Ezra stared down at the ground, his fingers plucking nervously at the grass as he spoke. He hoped Buck wouldn't ask him why he'd wanted suddenly to come along, because *he* didn't even know the answer to that question. It just somehow felt... right.
"Hell, Ezra... we'd have asked ya sooner if we'd a known ya wanted to come. Just never figgered ya'd be interested in fishin'." Buck looked over at Ezra and nudged him with his elbow. "I hope we didn't ruin it for ya by funnin' with ya the way we did. Ya know we didn't mean no harm by it."
Ezra glanced up at Buck and shook his head, "On the contrary... as much as I detest being awakened in such an abrupt manner, I have to admit these... incidents... have made our excursion that much more interesting." He rubbed lightly at the welt on the back of his neck and grinned ruefully. "I could have managed quite well without my encounter with those nasty little blood-suckers, but that was hardly your fault. Just an unfortunate accident."
Buck laughed and, reaching out, tipped the gambler's hat forward over his eyes. "Hell, Ezra... those *incidents* as you call 'em are all just part of bein' a family. You'll get used to 'em after awhile."
"Hey, Buck! Look at this!" JD's voice drifted down from one of the trees and Buck and Ezra looked up to see where he was.
"Damn it, boy... get your butt down outta there 'fore ya fall an'--" Buck never got a chance to finish his warning. To their horror, they saw the branch JD was precariously perched on bend under his weight and finally snap in two.
The two older men were on their feet and running the minute they saw JD start to drop, their hearts pounding wildly and their eyes never leaving the boy as he tumbled through the branches, grabbing frantically at anything he could to try and stop his fall. JD was able to slow his momentum, but couldn't latch onto a branch strong enough to stop him altogether. Buck and Ezra managed to get under him just as he plummeted past the last branch, and were able to cushion his landing. All three men ended up on the ground in a tangled pile of arms and legs, with JD on top and Buck and Ezra on the bottom, desperately gasping for breath.
"You alright... JD?" Buck managed to suck in enough air to get a few words out, anxious to make sure the boy wasn't injured.
JD laughed nervously, as he flexed his arms and legs, checking for injuries. "Yeah... I'm okay. Thanks for catchin' me... I--"
Ezra groaned softly and struggled to breathe under the boy's considerable weight. "I'm relieved... you were... unharmed, Mr. Dunne... now would you... mind... getting... up!"
JD immediately scrambled to his feet, apologizing profusely as he turned around and saw the pained expressions on his friends' faces. "Oh, geez... sorry 'bout that. You two okay?"
Buck slowly sat up as his breathing finally started to even out and reaching over to grab the hand Ezra was shakily waving at him, pulled the gambler up beside him. "I think I'm in one piece... you alright, Ezra?"
Ezra took a quick mental inventory of the various aches and pains that had blossomed throughout his body and nodded his head. "Bent and bruised, but thankfully not broken. Would you mind helping me to my feet, Mr. Dunne... I think my posterior may have sustained the most damage thanks to this rather large rock I'm sittin' on."
Buck frowned when he heard Ezra's low moan of pain as he tried walking. "Damn, Ezra... are ya gonna be able to ride?"
Ezra stretched his sore muscles and moaned again as his backside started throbbing painfully. "I'm sure most of the soreness will have disappeared by the time we start back, Mr. Wilmington." Shooting a glare at JD, Ezra moved slowly back over to where he'd been lying in the grass and retrieved his hat. "At least it better be, or our young friend here will be carrying me all the way home."
Buck and JD both winced when they heard Ezra's sharp intake of breath as he bent over, and knew he was in more pain than he was admitting.
Buck let JD help him to his feet, and then checked the boy over while he waited for his legs to quit shaking. The boy had several scratches on his face and hands, and a particularly nasty bruise was darkening along his jaw line. "Ya sure you're okay, Kid?"
JD gently touched the bruise and nodded as he shot a worried look at Ezra. "Yeah... I'm just a little sore. I'm really sorry, Buck... I didn't mean for that to happen."
"We know ya didn't." Buck followed the direction of JD's gaze and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, Kid... ya just scared the hell outta ol' Ezra... he's not really mad at ya."
"Ya know, Buck... maybe we outta throw the bet an' make sure Ezra wins. I think he deserves it after all he's been through." JD plucked a few leaves off his shirt as he and Buck walked toward the gambler.
"Nah... Ezra loves to win, but he don't like havin' it handed to 'im." Buck shook his head and smiled as he brushed more leaves off the younger man's back. "We'll just have to try an' make sure nothin' else happens to 'im 'fore we head home... or us. At the rate we're goin'... Nathan won't let us leave town again unless he's with us to patch us up."
JD started laughing as he watched Ezra gingerly rubbing his backside. "Can't ya just see Ezra's face when Nathan insists on checking that last bruise he got... he'll be turnin' fifty shades of red while he tries to convince Nathan he's okay."
Buck laid his arm across JD's shoulders and grinned. "An' we'll be right there to enjoy the show. I can't wait to see how Ezra wiggles outta that one."
JD snorted. "If he's still in this much pain, he'll be wigglin' mighty careful... that's for sure."
Ezra scowled at the two men when he heard them laughing. "Gettin' your amusement out of my misery again, Gentlemen? If this is what it means to be part of the family... I want a divorce."
The two men looked quickly at Ezra's face to see if he was serious, and were relieved to see a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and a glint of humor in his light green eyes.
Buck smacked Ezra on the back and laughed at the smaller man's muffled grunt of pain. "Aw, come on now, Ezra... ya know ya don't really wanna divorce... then you'd miss out on all this fun."
Ezra began complaining loudly about their twisted idea of fun and tried to stalk away from the two men, but was stopped when they each threw an arm across his shoulders and began walking beside him, chiding him playfully on trying to leave his two favorite brothers behind.
Ezra heaved a deep sigh of resignation when he failed to pull himself out of their grasp and reluctantly slowed his pace to match theirs. His head dropped to his chest as they started in on how ungrateful he was and began listing off all they'd done to try and make this an enjoyable trip for him, also reminding him that he wasn't the only one who'd been the victim of the jokes. That much was true. JD and Buck seemed to be having a friendly competition on who could play the most tricks on the other while they were there... salt in the coffee, mud in a boot... just childish little pranks. Luckily, they were basically leaving Ezra out of that contest.
When their discussion turned to an argument over who's trick had worked best so far, Ezra finally decided to try and shut them out with thoughts of home... a hot bath, a good meal, a stiff drink, and finally... a good, long night's rest in his warm, soft feather bed. <Please, God... just let them tire of this soon... that's all I ask.>
Ezra got his wish when they reached the narrowest part of the trail. It was only wide enough for two people to walk side by side and there immediately ensued a slight argument between JD and himself over who would walk beside Buck.
The trail followed along side a shallow ravine at that point, and Buck had to grab first JD and then Ezra and pull them back as they wandered too close to the edge. They were so engrossed in battling for Buck's attention, that neither of them was paying any heed to where they were walking.
"Damn it! Will you two quit actin' like two year olds an' watch where the hell you're goin'?!" Buck yelled as he jerked Ezra back onto the trail for the third time. The only thing releasing his anger accomplished was giving the two younger men something new to argue about... which one of them was acting more like a child.
Somehow, Ezra managed to maneuver himself into the coveted position at Buck's right elbow and turned and shot JD a smug look of satisfaction. Naturally, JD refused to be outdone and immediately tried to squeeze in on the gunslinger's left side.
Just as Buck opened his mouth to tell JD that there just wasn't room enough for three men on this part of the trail, he saw the young peacekeeper's booted foot land on a particularly soft patch of earth and begin to slip out from under him. Buck quickly grabbed JD's shoulder and twisted around, throwing the boy in Ezra's general direction. He saw the gambler wrap his arms around the Kid and heaved a sigh of relief... just before the ground dropped out from under him and he disappeared into the ravine.
"Buck!!" Ezra's and JD's panicked cries followed Buck as he slid rapidly toward the bottom. By some miracle, he managed to keep from getting turned around and traveled most of the distance on his back, feet first.
Ezra and JD moved down the trail a few yards and eased carefully up to the edge of the ravine. Looking down, they were relieved to see that Buck had made it to the bottom seemingly in one piece.
"Are you alright, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked as he scanned the slope for the easiest way to reach the ladies man.
"Yeah, I think so... shit!" Buck swore as he tried to stand and felt a sharp pain shoot up his left leg. Sinking back down to the ground, he probed gently at the offending limb and then looked back up at his two friends still standing on the trail. "Got a sprained ankle, but other than that I'm fine. Don't think I can make it back up that slope though. There's a spot down the creek a ways that'd be a lot easier climb... I'll just hobble on down there an' then I'll be able to get back up to ya."
"Why don't you let one of us come down there and assist you. You're going to have a hard time walking on that ankle." Ezra's suggestion was readily agreed to by Buck when he stood and tried to put weight on his injured leg and found it wasn't going to be able to hold him.
Ezra and JD immediately began arguing over which one of them would go down. Buck shook his head in exasperation and finally stepped in to make the decision before one of them ended up shoving the other over the edge in anger.
"Damn it, will you two stop your fussin'?! You're drivin' me crazy!" Buck glared at the two men until they finally stopped and listened to him. "Ezra, you're too damn sore to be climbin' down that hill... let JD come down here an' you just get on down to the other end an' be ready to help me up outta here."
JD gave Ezra a look of triumph and quickly scrambled over the edge. Reaching Buck, he moved in beside him, wrapped an arm around the taller man's waist, and began slowly helping him make his way along the bottom of the ravine. The boy glanced back up at Ezra and couldn't help giving him one last smirk before he turned his attention back to helping Buck.
Ezra watched the two men to make sure they were going to be able to manage okay. He caught the look JD sent his way and knew by the frown that suddenly appeared on Buck's face, that he'd seen it, too. For the first time, Ezra began to think accepting their invitation to tag along had been a mistake. JD was miserable because he had to share Buck, and Buck was miserable because of their demands for his undivided attention. Ezra shook his head in disgust as he realized how childishly he'd been acting.
Hanging his head disconsolately, Ezra turned and began limping down the trail. He couldn't help but think it might be better if he just headed back to Four Corners now on his own. Maybe it would give Buck and JD a chance to salvage the remainder of their trip. He was amazed at how the thought of leaving Buck's... and even JD's... company bothered him. Despite everything that had happened, he *was* having a good time, but he couldn't bear the thought of making Buck unhappy... so as much as he hated to, Ezra decided he'd make up an excuse and leave first thing in the morning.
Buck watched Ezra until he was out of sight, and then pulled JD to a stop. He couldn't help but notice the dejected slump to the gambler's shoulders as he walked away and realized he needed to have a few words with the Kid.
"What'd ya stop for, Buck?" JD was staring up at him questioningly.
Buck looked around and then nodded toward a large rock lying a few feet away. "Set me down over there for a minute, Kid... we need to have a talk."
JD shook his head and tried to get the bigger man moving again. "We can talk later, Buck... right now we need to get you back to camp an' off a this ankle."
"No... now, JD... while Ezra's not around." Buck forced him to take him over to the rock and eased himself down onto it.
"What do ya mean 'while Ezra's not around'... what's he got to do with this?" JD wiped the sweat off his brow as he impatiently waited for Buck's answer.
"Everything, Kid... pretty much everything." Buck stared at the boy as he tried to decide the best way to proceed. He didn't want to hurt his feelings, but he had to make him see how he was behaving and how it was affecting all three of them. "Ya know you're my best friend, don't ya, JD?"
JD's brows furrowed, but he quickly nodded in agreement. "Sure, Buck... an' you're mine."
"What about Ezra?" Buck saw confusion appear in the youth's dark brown eyes... and then a little flash of guilt as he apparently began to see where the older man was headed.
"What about 'im?" JD looked away, a slight flush of embarrassment coloring his cheeks.
Buck put a hand on the boy's shoulder and shook him gently. "I thought we settled all this when Ezra had his little problem. Remember? When you were jealous of our time together because you thought we were pushing you away?"
JD refused to look at the ladies man, but Buck could see his flush deepen. "I wasn't jealous... I was just feelin' left out, that's all."
"Exactly, JD... an' how do ya think Ezra's feelin' now? We invite him along on this trip an' then you spend your whole time makin' 'im feel like he's in the way." Buck saw a flash of anger in the boy's eyes as his head whipped up and he heatedly protested the accusation.
"Oh, come on, Buck... Ezra's been actin' the same way... tryin' to hog all your time an' attention. How come ya ain't yellin' at him, too?!" JD threw his hands up in the air in exasperation as he refused to take all the blame for what had been happening.
Buck shook his head and tried once more. "I'm not *yellin'* at ya... I'm just tryin' to explain something to ya. Ezra's just reactin' to the way you're treatin' 'im. He feels like he's bein' pushed aside just when he finally thought he'd found some sense of acceptance. He's hurtin', JD, an' fightin' to hang on to the first real friendship he's ever had." Buck squeezed the boy's shoulder gently as he tried to get through to him exactly what Ezra was feeling. "Ya gotta try an' remember... he's new to this whole business of bein' friends an' he don't got any idea how to deal with it. All he can do is watch what we do... how we act with each other... an' try an' do the same. He's just tryin' to learn how to fit in... that's all. He probably wants to open up to you just like he does to me, but you keepin' that chip on your shoulder ain't givin' 'im the chance."
JD struggled to accept what Buck was saying and tried to see the whole situation through Ezra's eyes. Guilt surged through him as he realized that what Buck had said was true... he had been trying to push Ezra away. JD groaned softly as he felt his anger draining away.
"You're right, Buck... I've been actin' like a selfish brat." He grinned crookedly at the ladies man. "Why the heck do ya put up with me anyway?"
Buck smiled and wrapped an arm around the boy's neck, pulling himself up off the rock. "Like I said, JD... 'cause you're my best friend."
They started to move on down the ravine when Buck suddenly stopped again and frowned at JD. "One thing I can't figure out. You were alright with mine an' Ezra's relationship when he was still our 'Little One'... at least, after our talk ya were... what made ya start havin' a problem with 'im now?"
JD thought a minute and then grinned sheepishly up at Buck. "You're gonna think it's stupid, but... well... I knew Lit'l Ezra would be goin' away eventually an' I figured I'd have you all to myself again." He shrugged as Buck shook his head, still confused. "This Ezra is here to stay... I guess I just didn't like the idea of havin' to share ya with him for the rest of our lives."
Buck laughed and lightly cuffed the young peacekeeper on the shoulder. "Damn, JD... take a look at me... there's plenty enough to go around." He was relieved to see JD return his laughter and gave him a little hug as they started walking again.
JD's smile faded and he stared thoughtfully up at the larger man. "Buck?... How did you know what Ezra was feelin'? I mean... how did ya figure out he wasn't just bein' selfish like I was, but was feelin' left out?"
Buck opened his mouth to speak and then hesitated as he looked down at the boy. JD's feelings for Chris Larabee were no secret. Whereas he adored Buck as a big brother... he practically worshipped Chris as the father figure he'd never had. How could he do anything that would tarnish that image the Kid had of the man? The answer to that was easy... he couldn't. So Buck merely shook his head and mumbled, "I just knew... that's all."
JD continued to stare at Buck as his mind worked over the reasons why the usually talkative gunslinger... the man who was always ready to launch into a long, drawn-out story at the drop of a hat... would suddenly turn as close-mouthed as Chris or --. Suddenly, JD knew.
"It's got something to do with Chris and Vin, doesn't it?" JD saw Buck flinch, but he still wouldn't say anything. He nudged the older man gently with his elbow. "I'm right, aren't I?"
Buck glanced at the younger man and then looked away. "Just let it go, JD... I don't wanna--" Buck sighed and shook his head sadly. "Just drop it, okay?"
JD frowned at his friend, loving him for wanting to protect him, but at the same time resenting him for treating him like a kid. "Come on, Buck... give me some credit... I know Chris isn't perfect. An' I knew something happened between you, him an' Vin... something that made you real unhappy. I came close to hatin' Chris for treatin' ya the way he did, but then I realized he was just a man... not the hero I wanted him to be."
Buck shook his head in wonder as he stared down at the boy. "You're a lot smarter than I give you credit for, aren't ya? I gotta quit treatin' ya like a kid." The older man laughed softly and gave JD a light squeeze. "My turn to ask... why the heck do ya keep puttin' up with me?"
JD smiled up at him and shrugged. "Same reason, Buck... 'cause you're my best friend. Now... was I right about Chris?"
"Yeah, you were right... I knew Ezra was feelin' left out 'cause that's how I felt back then. An' ya know, you aren't the only one that let's his emotions get in the way of his brain sometimes. When I first realized that Chris an' Vin were startin' to get close, I did the same thing you've been doin'... tried to find ways to push Vin back outta the picture." Buck thought about all the times he'd tried to clown around to gain Chris's attention... or brought up things out of his and Chris's past... things that Vin wouldn't know anything about... just to try and hang onto his friendship with the gunslinger.
JD grinned and nodded his head. "Yeah, I remember. I thought either Chris or Vin one was gonna shoot ya 'fore ya finally stopped." Then he turned serious again. "Why *did* ya stop, Buck? Did Josiah or somebody point out how ya were actin'... like you just did for me?"
Buck shook his head and looked off into the distance, his eyes growing even sadder. "Nope, Kid... I just finally realized that what Chris and I had was over, an' that I'd be a whole lot happier with no best friend at all than with one who didn't really want the job. I just couldn't handle bein' shoved aside any longer an' gave up." He looked up just as they rounded a bend in the ravine and saw Ezra standing up on the trail, waiting patiently to help them. "I know how much that hurts, JD... that's why I can't stand the thought of us doin' it to Ezra. That's the same kinda treatment he's put up with his whole life, an' it's what he's grown to expect... I think it's time we tried to change that for 'im." He turned his eyes down to one of the two people he knew would always be there for him and then looked back up at the other one. "What d' ya think... can we do it?"
JD's face tightened into a grim look of determination as he followed Buck's line of sight and saw Ezra standing alone. "Darn right we can, Buck. It might not be easy, but between the two of us, I think we can show Ezra what it's like to have real friends."
Bucks eyes softened as he stared down at the youngster. "I knew I could count on ya, JD. After all, you were there for me when I needed a friend... even though ya had to put up with a lot of my shit ' fore I finally realized that that *was* what I needed. An' I know just how big that heart a yours is... there's plenty of room in it for me an' Ezra both."
JD waved at Ezra and grinned when he saw a small smile appear on the gambler's face as he hesitantly waved back. "Thanks, Buck... for stoppin' me from throwin' one of my two best friends away."
"No problem, Pard... just returnin' the favor. I just happened to see what was needed before you did this time." Buck watched anxiously as Ezra eased himself down the side of the ravine, wincing every time he saw him flinch from the pain it was causing, then allowed the two younger men to help him back up onto the trail.
Buck smiled as they immediately pulled his arms around their necks and took most of his weight upon themselves. It was as if all the former unpleasantness between the two men had never happened and all they wanted to do now was concentrate on helping him.
Buck knew he could have made it back to camp just fine on his own... the pain in his ankle had eased considerably... but he didn't have the heart to tell them that. He realized that at that moment they needed to take care of him, and if it would bring the two of them back together, then he'd gladly allow it. Besides... it felt damn good to be fussed over like that... at least for a little while. There was just one problem... they were being way too serious in their work. He decided to lighten the mood up a bit.
Buck gradually relaxed his muscles and allowed more and more of his weight to fall on their shoulders. He smiled when he heard them grunt and felt them stagger slightly under the extra load.
"Damn, boys... you two need to build up those muscles. Listen to ya huffin' an' puffin' just 'cause ya gotta carry a light-weight like me." Buck shook his head and smiled sadly as two sets of eyes glared up at him. "Pitiful... just pitiful."
Suddenly, Ezra and JD stopped and stared at each other. Nodding in unspoken agreement, they quickly released their hold on the bigger man and slipped out from under his arms. Buck hit the ground with a resounding thud and watched as the two of them threw an arm around each other's shoulders and stalked off.
"Hey! There weren't no call to do that!" Buck struggled to his feet and limped slowly after the two men. "Come on, fellas... is this anyway to treat your best friend? Huh? Is it?"
Buck grinned when he saw their shoulders shake and heard their peels of laughter ringing through the forest. Well, at least he'd helped patch up their differences... now if he could just make it back to camp. He noticed that Ezra and JD carefully kept themselves within earshot of him in case he needed help, so he decided to stay back and allow them to do some much needed bonding on their own. The trip had finally taken a turn for the better... he just hoped it would continue that way until they made it back to Four Corners. Buck didn't think any of them could handle anymore unpleasant surprises.
JD, being the least injured of the three, threw together a quick dinner while Buck and Ezra stretched out on their bedrolls and offered their unwanted advice on how to cook. Afterward, they limped back down to the pond and got in a little more fishing... thankfully Buck's prayers were answered and the rest of the day passed without incident.
By the time it started to get dark, all three men had managed to land a few more fish... but to Buck's and JD's consternation, none of them were as big as Ezra's previous catch. It looked like they didn't need to worry about throwing the bet... the gambler was probably going to win it fair and square.
"Well, Gentlemen... I don't know about you, but I'm ready to call it a day." Ezra stood looking down at the two men lying stretched out in the grass as he wound his line around the end of his pole. He had wisely chosen not to join them, knowing his bruised bottom would have made sitting on the hard ground much too painful of an ordeal. He had no idea how he was going to manage a full day in the saddle when they returned home... just thinking about it hurt. Ezra produced a pack of cards from his jacket pocket and waved them at his friends. "Perhaps we could relax with a few rounds of poker before we retire for the night. Anyone up to a game?"
The other two men readily agreed, and after helping Buck to his feet, they made their slow, halting way back to camp. Even JD was limping by then, because every part of him that had hit a branch or twig in his fall out of that tree had begun to ache.
As much as Ezra hated to accept their help, it was necessary in order to get him settled on his bedroll in a position that didn't aggravate his already throbbing butt. His bedding was still lying where he'd dragged it the first night... halfway between Buck's and JD's. Neither man had suggested that Ezra move back around to the other side of the fire and had even thoughtfully held back any jokes that had come to mind at the relieved look on the gambler's face when he saw that he was going to be allowed to stay. Ezra would have moved before he'd have admitted to the measure of protection he felt being in their close proximity, but since they'd decided not to make an issue of it, he gratefully remained where he was.
Once JD had Buck settled in, he eased himself down on the ground and pulled one of his blankets up around his shoulders. The night air had cooled considerably and the heat from the fire felt good on their aching bodies. Ezra reached behind him and retrieved his flask, and after taking a few warming sips, passed it to his friends and commenced dealing the cards.
Chris nodded at the three empty seats and shook his head. "Sure is quiet without them here."
Nathan looked up at him in surprise as he checked his cards and tossed two down on the table. "You ain't complainin' are ya? Personally, I'm enjoyin' not havin' t' listen t' Ezra's constant braggin'. It's bad 'nough losin' t' 'im most every game, but havin' t' hear 'bout how good he is jus' makes it that much worse." Nathan looked down at the table as he picked up his two new cards and missed the looks that the other three men exchanged over his words.
Josiah focused his attention on his cards as he spoke quietly, disagreeing with the healer's less than flattering opinion of the gambler. "I don't know, I thought Ezra had been doin' a lot less of that since his accident." He looked up and grinned at the others. "In fact, I think Brother Ezra has become down right humble during our nightly card games... while he's takin' all our money."
Vin laughed softly and nodded in agreement as he anted. "Hell, I think he's even throwin' a few games jus' t' give us a chance t' break even. He has t' be... seein' as how that's 'bout the only way any of us could beat 'im."
Nathan snorted in disgust and threw in his hand. "Fold. Prob'ly jus' doin' that to make sure we keep playin'... he's still winnin' a helluva lot more than he's losin'." He leaned back and took a long drink of his beer as he watched the hand play out. "You can bet that southern con man ain't gonna do nothin' that ain't gonna benefit 'im in the long run."
The other three men stared at him in surprise. They were all aware of how much Ezra had grown since they'd first met him and couldn't understand why Nathan just couldn't... or wouldn't... see it. They'd hoped the healer's feelings had finally changed after all the time he had spent caring for Ezra when he was locked in his five year old world, but all his old hostility for him had gradually returned when the old Ezra had reappeared. Apparently his resentment of the gambler and his southern heritage ran a lot deeper than they'd ever imagined.
JD grinned and raked in the pot for the second time. "What's a matter, Ezra... ya havin' trouble concentratin' 'cause of your...um... injury?"
Ezra reached for the cards and winced as the movement sent a dull pain radiating across his backside. It had taken some shifting around and experimenting, but he'd finally managed to get somewhat comfortable by stretching out on his left side. He'd checked on it once when he went into the woods to relieve himself and had moaned when he'd found a large, purple contusion covering his right cheek and part of his left. The trip back to town was becoming less and less appealing all the time.
Buck saw the look of pain cross Ezra's face and wondered again how he was ever going to make it home. He'd offered to go back for a wagon, but knew before he even brought the subject up that the stubborn gambler would turn him down. His pride couldn't handle the kind of beating it would take when everyone in town discovered the exact nature of the injury that had forced them to cart him home in such a manner. Ezra would much rather suffer the physical beating he was going to take from the prolonged contact between his bruised bottom and the hard leather of his saddle than suffer that kind of humiliation.
And surprisingly, after all that had happened, he still seemed to be having a good time. He hadn't uttered a single complaint and had even accepted their pranks and ribbing good-naturedly... merely promising some dire form of retaliation as soon as he got the chance.
"Don't worry, Ezra... once we get home, Nathan'll probably give ya some liniment to rub on that an' then it'll quit hurtin' ya so much." JD had also noticed how much discomfort the gambler was in and felt a stab of guilt since it was his horsing around that had caused it.
Ezra glanced up at them and then quickly looked back down at the cards. "Um... I was hopin' we could just keep all these unfortunate incidents to ourselves. At least... as far as our esteemed healer is concerned."
Buck and JD shared a puzzled look and then stared at the Southerner and noticed how nervous he now seemed. "Ya don't want us to tell Nathan 'bout what happened? How come? He ain't gonna rib ya no worse than any of the others... an' ya know he oughta look at those welts an' that bruise... just to make sure you're okay."
Ezra concentrated on shuffling the cards as he tried to come up with a plausible explanation for his reluctance to see the healer. He couldn't tell them the truth since they apparently hadn't noticed the looks Nathan gave him... or the disparaging comments he made, usually disguised as jokes. No matter how much progress Ezra thought he was making toward becoming the man his friends seemed to think he could be, Nathan could destroy it all with just one look or a few negative words. He shook his head slightly and silently berated himself. <Come on, Standish... obviously it's all in your head. Just your same old insecurities making you doubt your new friends. No one else sees it the way you do... so you must be wrong.>
Buck reached out and lightly touched the younger man's arm. "Ezra? Is there somethin' goin' on with you an' Nathan?"
Ezra fixed a smile on his face before finally looking up at the other two men. "Of course not. It's just my usual aversion to submittin' to our esteemed healer's poking and prodding... that and the thought of bein' forced to ingest one of those vile concoctions of his. You needn't worry however, I'll be sure to pay Mr. Jackson a visit upon our return and allow him the satisfaction of informing me that I should have stayed in the saloon where I belonged, while he's working his healing wonders on me." He rapidly dealt the cards and deftly changed the subject. "May I remind you gentlemen that I am currently winning our little contest. Perhaps we should make this the last hand so that you'll be able to get an early start on your futile attempts to procure a fish large enough to wrest the lead from me."
Ezra successfully redirected their attention away from himself and turned it toward a discussion on the next day's round of fishing, and how they would make him eat his boastful words. Buck and JD assured him they had a few secrets left to try that would certainly enable them to land a few of those whoppers they just knew were lurking somewhere deep in the pond.
Ezra was relieved to see that he'd convinced them there was nothing wrong between he and Nathan... now if he could just convince himself.
JD slowly opened his eyes, saw it was barely dawn and started to roll back over for another hour or so of sleep, when he suddenly remembered what he'd had planned for this morning. He quickly raised his head and peered around the campsite, and was disappointed to see that Buck had made it up before him. <Oh well, guess I'll have to be satisfied with getting just Ezra. Prob'ly safer that way anyhow.>
He saw Buck open his mouth to speak and quickly made shushing gestures at him before he had a chance to waken the still slumbering gambler. Pushing himself up out of his blankets, he hurried over and began whispering in the older man's ear. Buck shook his head once and gave him an 'are you crazy?!' look, but finally just shrugged his shoulders at the boy and settled back with his coffee to watch the show. Ezra had said that all the little things that had been happening to him... including the practical jokes... had made the trip interesting. Well, it was about to get even more so if JD could just pull this one off.
JD poured some water out of his canteen into his mug and held it over the fire for a few seconds until it was lukewarm, then moved stealthily toward Ezra's sleeping form. He tugged gently at the blankets that were tucked around the Southerner's waist and slowly lifted them up. Glancing at Ezra to make sure he was still asleep, JD carefully eased the mug of water under the covers and emptied it a little bit at a time. His eyes never once left the other man's face, and every muscle in his body was tensed, ready to run if the gambler so much as twitched.
Buck had all he could do to keep from laughing out loud when Ezra suddenly shifted position and mumbled softly. JD jumped, jerked the mug back out from under the covers and scurried quickly over beside Buck, collapsing on his bedroll and putting... what the boy hoped was... a complete look of innocence on his face.
They waited expectantly, but Ezra merely pulled the covers up under his chin and went right back to sleep. JD finally allowed himself to breathe again and placed his hand on his chest as if it would help slow his racing heart.
"God... I thought he had me for sure. All I could think about was that darn gun lyin' beside his hand that I forgot to move." JD shakily poured himself a cup of coffee and took a few quick gulps in an effort to calm his jittery nerves.
Buck waited til JD nodded his readiness, and then gently began calling Ezra's name. It took several tries, each one a little louder than the last, but the gambler finally began to stir. "Come on, Ezra... daylight's wastin' an' those fish are down there just waitin' to be caught."
Ezra buried his face deeper in the blankets, his mumbled words almost unintelligible. "Then go catch them, Mr. Wilmington... and let me sleep."
JD poured a mug of coffee and placed it on the ground next to the older man's head. "Aw, come on, Ezra... we've only got a coupla days left... ya can't spend it lyin' around sleepin'. What's the fun in that?"
Ezra cracked open one eye and peered out at JD. "May I assume correctly that you have no intentions of leaving me alone until I pry myself from the relative warmth of my bedroll and join you in the *fun* of sitting in the chilly, damp, mornin' air waitin' for an elusive finned behemoth to devour my dubious offering of an early mornin' repast?"
JD just stared at Ezra as he tried to comprehend what in the world he'd said and finally gave up. After a questioning glance back at Buck, who merely shrugged and shook his head, he decided to just guess at the answer. "Um... yeah?"
"I thought as much." Ezra sighed and eased the blankets down away from his face, resigned to the fact that his peaceful sleep was over.
JD realized he must have guessed right and gave Buck a smug grin of satisfaction as he sat back down beside him. Both men had to work extremely hard to maintain an air of studied nonchalance as they kept a close eye on Ezra, waiting for his reaction to the strangely damp condition of his clothes and bedding. They didn't have to wait long, and his reaction when it did come, was priceless.
Ezra stretched, moaning softly as his still tender backside throbbed in protest, and suddenly froze. His eyes widened in shocked confusion and a bright, scarlet flush slowly spread over his cheeks as he shot a quick glance at the other two men to see if they were looking at him.
Buck and JD appeared to be concentrating on their coffee, but were actually carefully watching Ezra out of the corners of their eyes... and finding it almost impossible to keep from roaring with laughter at the look of complete mortification on the gambler's face.
Moving gingerly, Ezra eased himself up onto his side and, slipping a hand under the blankets, discovered to his horror that his first impression was correct... his pants and blankets were definitely wet. <How in God's name had that happened? And what the hell do I do now?!>
Buck had to elbow JD hard in the ribs as he heard a soft snicker escape the boy's trembling lips, but risking a quick look at Ezra, he saw that he needn't have worried about him hearing it. The distraught Southerner was too busy eyeing the distance between himself and his saddlebags... which held the only change of clothing he had left... to worry about what his two friends were doing.
Buck decided it was time to add to the gambler's discomfort. "Well, come on, Ezra... what are ya waitin' for? Get your butt up outta there an' let's get goin'. Oh shit... I forgot! Is your butt still hurtin'?" Buck nudged JD and winked at him. "JD... get over there an' help Ezra up. I would, but my ankle's still a might sore."
Buck nearly lost it at the sound of Ezra's startled squeak of panic when he saw JD start in his direction.
"No!" Ezra pulled the blankets tighter around him, and his face got even redder as he quickly refused JD's offer of help. "I can manage just fine on my own... thank you anyway, Mr. Dunne."
JD kept walking toward the now frantically gesticulating gambler, impressed with himself for being able to retain a straight face even though his insides were cramping with the effort he was making to keep from laughing. "Are ya sure, Ezra? Why don't ya at least let me hold the blankets for ya so it's easier for ya to get up?"
Buck reminded himself to congratulate JD on his excellent acting performance later when he saw the boy reach for the Southerner's blankets and somehow manage to keep a straight face as he ignored Ezra's attempts to wave him away.
The gambler's eyes widened and his fingers clutched desperately at the covers as he struggled to convince the Kid that he didn't need or want any help. "Stop! I said I'm fine, JD!!" Ezra's head whipped around as he saw Buck push himself to his feet and limp toward them. "Really, Mr. Wilmington... I can manage on my own! Why don't y'all just go on ahead without me an' I'll join you as soon as I make myself presentable." He uttered a nervous, high-pitched laugh which was nearly Buck and JD's undoing as he tried to convince them to leave. "After all, c-can't be scarin' the fish away with my undoubtedly r-rumpled appearance."
"Nah... ya look fine, Ezra. Here, let's get ya up an'--" Buck and JD both reached a hand out for Ezra's blanket, but stopped immediately when he tried to push himself away from them, forcing a low groan of pain as his bruised and battered body protested the quick movement. They both backed off, realizing they'd pushed him far enough and needed to quit before he hurt himself.
The incredible look of relief that washed over Ezra's face was almost as comical as his earlier panic, and both men had to turn away quickly before he saw the huge grins that they just couldn't hold back.
"Well, we'll go down to the pond then since ya don't need our help, an' ya just come on down whenever you're ready. Okay?" Buck listened for the gambler's reply, still not able to turn around without giving the whole joke away.
"That's fine, Mr. Wilmington. I'll be down in just a bit... feel free to start without me." Ezra's eagerness to have them leave was so evident, that all Buck and JD could manage in reply was a quick wave of their hands as they hurried away.
As soon as they were safely out of Ezra's range of hearing, they collapsed on the ground and howled with laughter. Once they'd finally gotten themselves under control, they sat up and stared back toward the campsite.
JD looked at Buck and grinned evilly. "I think it's time we let him off the hook."
Buck watched, a puzzled frown on his face, as JD sauntered over to a nearby bush. Reaching behind it he pulled out a rumpled pair of men's dress pants, a white linen shirt, a black vest, and a dark green tailcoat.
Buck's frown turned to a look of immense pride as he realized the thought JD had put into his little prank. Limping over to the boy, he clapped him soundly on the back. "Kid... I'm real proud of ya. You've obviously been payin' attention all these months when I was tryin' to teach ya the fine art of playin' a practical joke. I think you've even outdone me this time."
JD's grin widened at Buck's praise and he thanked the older man for the excellent example he'd set for him as the two of them quietly made their way back to the camp.
Ezra was still wrapped in his blanket and bent over his saddlebags, digging furiously for the set of dry clothes that he knew he'd packed, but just couldn't seem to find.
"Lookin' for somethin', Ezra?"
The Southerner froze at the sound of JD's voice, his face warming with a combination of anger and intense embarrassment as he was suddenly aware of exactly what was going on. Another goddamn prank... and he'd fallen for it hook, line, and sinker. Thoughts of revenge burned brightly in his mind as he slowly stood and turned to face the two men.
It took every single bit of his self-control, but Ezra was able to put on a mask of cheerful acceptance as he stared back at the pair who were now laughing uncontrollably.
"Got me again, didn't you? So it was you this time, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra kept a smile plastered firmly on his face as he limped toward the two men. "Very ingenious of you, I must say. You've learned well from the master, haven't you? May I have my clothes now, please. It's a little uncomfortable standing here in my damp attire."
Their smiles faded slowly as they realized how well he was taking the whole thing. This just wasn't how they'd expected him to react.
"Um... sure, Ezra... here ya go." JD held the pile of clothes out to the gambler and couldn't help but flinch when he reached for them... but nothing happened. Ezra merely thanked him quietly and turned and began limping slowly away.
Buck and JD exchanged a worried look, jumping nervously when Ezra stopped and spoke again.
"Would you mind going on down to the pond now so I can change here near the warmth of the fire rather than out in the woods?" Ezra's voice was still perfectly calm and the two jokesters were completely unnerved by it.
With only a quick nod of their heads, they hurried away from the camp, not even risking a look back at the Southerner. They were well aware that they were in for a world of hurt when Ezra finally came up with a way to get back at them... and they knew there wasn't a darn thing they could do about it. The day seemed a little less perfect now that they had the specter of his revenge looming over their heads, and Buck and JD knew it was going to actually be a relief when the axe finally fell.
Ezra made his way slowly down toward to the two men sitting side by side on the grass. Their voices drifted back to him, and when he realized they were arguing over whose fault the whole mess was, he stopped to listen.
"Damn it, JD... I tried to tell ya it was a dumb idea!"
"What?! You did not! You just sat there an' enjoyed every minute of it! Besides... you started this whole thing that first mornin' with your lousy screech owl impression."
"Lousy?! What do ya mean lousy?! You saw Ezra's face when he bolted up out of that bedroll... it had to've sounded just like that owl he heard durin' the night to get that kinda reaction outta him."
"Hell, Buck... let me scream in your ear while you're sleepin' an' see how *you* react. Just 'cause ya scared the livin' daylights outta him don't mean ya sounded like no owl."
Buck scowled at him for a minute, then grinned and started chuckling. "Okay, maybe it didn't sound like an owl, but it sure did work the way I wanted it to. Did you see ol' Ezra's face when he was floppin' around on those blankets tryin' to find his guns?"
JD laughed and nodded his head. "I thought those green eyes of his were gonna pop right outta his head! Heck... it's a wonder he didn't *really* have an accident in his pants after that scare ya gave 'im."
Buck laughed harder and clutched at JD's shoulder at the remembered panic that had flooded the gambler's face. "Lordy... I ain't never seen anyone--"
"Catchin' any fish, Gentlemen?" Ezra had crept forward under the cover of their unrestrained laughter and now stood directly behind them.
Buck's laughter died immediately and his head dropped to his chest as soon as he heard Ezra's quiet southern drawl. "Aw shit."
JD jumped and turned to stare guiltily up at the gambler. "Um... sorry, Ezra... honest... it's just, the thought of your... I mean... we were just--" His stammering ground to a halt as he realized anything he said was just going to make the situation worse. "Sorry."
Ezra merely smiled at the two men as he went about the business of readying his pole. As soon as he had it settled next to theirs, he carefully lowered himself down beside Buck, wincing the minute his bottom touched the hard ground.
"It ain't feelin' any better this mornin'?" Buck realized Ezra intended to ignore what they'd been saying and was more than willing to go along with him.
Ezra shook his head as he squirmed around, trying to find a position he could tolerate. "Not really, but I'm sure it will have improved by the time we're ready to return home." Seeing the worry in his older friend's eyes and sensing he was about to bring up the subject of fetching a wagon again, Ezra deftly turned the conversation away from his infirmity by asking JD for tips on how to catch bigger fish. The boy didn't fail him, immediately launching into a long drawn-out list of different baits and techniques.
The rest of the morning passed pleasantly enough with some quiet conversation intermingled with comfortable silences. Ezra was enjoying the results of the guilt that the other two men were feeling as they eagerly saw to his every need without him even having to ask. Buck kept his hook baited and removed any fish he happened to catch, completely ignoring the rules that had been declared at the beginning of their little contest. JD, not to be outdone, ran and fetched anything Ezra could possibly want or need... his lunch, a canteen when he mentioned being thirsty, even a blanket for him to sit on when he complained about how hard the ground was.
Ezra's day couldn't have gone any smoother... until late in the afternoon when Buck hauled in a monster fish that far surpassed the one Ezra had been winning the contest with.
"Wow, Buck... that thing's huge! How the heck are we supposed to beat that one?" JD shook his head and stared in amazement at the lunker bass as Buck strung it on the line and heaved it over the bank and back into the water.
Buck laughed as he headed off into the trees to take care of some personal business. "You're not, JD... that money's as good as mine now."
"Yeah, well... we'll just see about that," JD muttered as his eyes carefully scanned the ground around him. "Gotcha!"
Ezra watched curiously as the boy suddenly pounced on something and waved his closed fist at him.
"Now we'll see who wins the contest." JD fastened whatever he'd caught on his hook and eagerly tossed it out in the water.
"What was that, JD?" Ezra watched in amazement when the end of the younger man's pole immediately started bobbing as a fish snatched up the proffered treat.
JD grinned over at the Southerner as he pulled in a fish almost, but not quite as big, as Buck's. "A grasshopper! Best bass bait there is!" He quickly removed the fish and set it free... not wanting to waste the time it took to put it on the stringer since it wasn't big enough to win. Crawling through the grass in search of more bait, he shot a look back over his shoulder at the gambler who sat watching him. "Come on, Ezra... find yourself a grasshopper. We can't let Buck win this contest... he'll never let us live it down."
That was all the incentive Ezra needed... just the thought of having to listen to Buck Wilmington brag all the way back to town sent a shudder of dread up the gambler's spine. Ezra removed his hat and jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to follow JD's example. Ignoring the throbbing pain in his backside, he bent over and began wandering across the banks, his eyes carefully searching for prospective bait.
Suddenly he spotted something moving in the grass near the edge of the clearing. Moving as fast as his bruised body would let him, Ezra grabbed at the grasshopper, cursing softly as it leaped out of his reach. Keeping his eye on the insect, the gambler followed it toward a tall patch of bright green weeds growing along the edge of the pond.
Buck walked out of the trees, slowing to a stop when he saw the strange antics of his two friends. "JD? What in the hell are you two doin'?"
JD looked up just as his hand closed around the insect he was chasing. "Catchin' grasshoppers... for bait." He grinned at the ladies man. "Don't make plans on spendin' that money just yet, Buck... I'll have your fish beat in no time with this little--"
The rest of his statement was interrupted when he saw Buck's attention suddenly shift to Ezra. JD jumped when the older man suddenly shouted a warning at the gambler and began limping as fast as he could across the uneven ground.
JD looked across the clearing to see what had Buck so excited, but couldn't figure out what was wrong. All he saw was Ezra making one final grab at the grasshopper he was chasing just as it leaped into the middle of some tall weeds... but nothing to explain Buck's actions.
"No! Ezra... don't! Stop!!" Buck cursed his aching ankle as he tried to close the distance between himself and the gambler.
Ezra was so intent on capturing the elusive insect he was following that he never even heard Buck's first warning, but when the second came... much closer and very much louder... it startled him. He jerked his head around to see what Buck was yelling about and never noticed the tree root stretched across his path.
Buck saw it though and saw what was about to happen. He tried to get out one final warning, but his words were too late. The toe of Ezra's left boot hit the obstacle, throwing him off balance and pitching him headfirst into the same patch of weeds that the grasshopper had disappeared into.
Buck slowed his steps when he saw it was too late and braced himself for what he knew was coming. He was extremely thankful to see that Ezra at least had time to put his arms out in an attempt to catch himself... it kept his face from making too much contact with the stinging nettles.
JD started to laugh at the usually graceful Southerner's awkward tumble once he saw him push himself out of the weeds and knew he was alright... but his laughter died in his throat when he saw the shocked expression of pain that suddenly washed over Ezra's face. Buck was ready for it, knowing exactly what the gambler was beginning to feel, but JD had no more knowledge of the effects of nettles than Ezra did and nearly jumped out of his skin when Ezra let go with a strangled cry of pain and a string of expletives that would have made a sailor blush.
Buck reached Ezra just as the pain struck and grabbed at his hands as he began rubbing frantically at his face and bare arms... trying desperately to get rid of whatever was stinging him.
"Ezra! Stop! That's only gonna make it worse!" Buck couldn't keep a hold on Ezra's hands and finally had to get behind the gambler and wrap his arms around him, grabbing and pinning his hands against his chest. "Easy now... just hang on... I'm gonna help ya, but ya gotta try an' hold still."
JD ran up and stood staring helplessly at the two men. Ezra thrashed against Buck, begging for him to let him go, but the taller man just tightened his grip and continued to try and get him to calm down.
"What the heck happened to 'im?!" JD reached out to help hold Ezra, but stopped when Buck motioned him back.
"He tangled with some nettles! See those plants growin' over there?! The ones with the yellow flowers?! Break off a couple of stalks and bring 'em over here! Hurry!" Buck looked down at the still struggling gambler and winced when he saw that his hands and arms were beginning to blister. It was just Ezra's luck to be cursed with sensitive skin. Most people only developed a small rash that went away fairly quickly, but a few were hit with a much more severe reaction like the one that Ezra was having.
Ezra uttered a deep-throated groan and pressed his head back against Buck's shoulder as the burning sensation continued. "Shit... that hurts... feels like my... damn skin's on... fire..." Ezra whispered breathlessly.
"I know, Pard... just hang in there." Buck glanced over and saw JD headed in their direction with a handful of stalks. As soon as he got close enough, Buck started explaining what needed to be done. "Take your knife an' split the stalk... that's right... just like that. Now spread it open an' start wiping down his face an' arms with it. Any place ya see those blisters, smear it on real heavy."
JD hesitated to touch Ezra... his skin was so red and sore looking he was afraid he'd just make it worse, but Buck encouraged him to go ahead, reassuring him that it would help ease the pain and itching that Ezra was experiencing.
JD started with Ezra's face, wiping away the tears of pain that streamed down the gambler's cheeks as he smoothed the thick sap that coated the inside of the stalk across the red spots. He could see the relief evident in Ezra's green eyes as the substance immediately began to cool and soothe his burning skin.
Buck felt Ezra relax a little as he realized that the treatment was working and the pain was going away. "If ya can hold still on your own now, Ezra... I'll let ya go an' help JD spread that stuff on ya."
Ezra took a few shaky breaths and nodded. Buck eased his grip on the Southerner, releasing him completely as soon as he knew he'd be able to stand on his own. Ezra trembled, his muscles clenching against the pain, but he managed to hold still while Buck and JD continued to work the sap over every inch of skin that had come in contact with the nettles fiery touch.
Buck was relieved to find that the blisters were confined to his arms and hands with only a few small ones on his neck. His face was a deep pink in spots, but not the angry red that covered the rest of his exposed skin. Ezra's hands were the worst since he'd clutched at the weeds as he was struggling to get to his feet, but even they began to quickly improve with the application of the soothing balm.
Ezra heaved a ragged sigh of relief as the painful burning sensation and tormenting itch finally began to recede. "God, that feels good." His eyes closed for a second as he relaxed and allowed himself to enjoy the simple comfort of the plant's cooling touch against his skin.
JD smiled at the blissful look of relief that had replaced the grimace of pain on the gambler's face. He glanced over at Buck and saw that he was also watching Ezra. "What kind of plant is this, Buck? An' how'd ya know to use it?"
Buck loosened Ezra's tie and undid the first couple of buttons on his shirt in order to get at his neck. He chuckled as Ezra emitted a soft, contented sigh as Buck gently rubbed the sap up and down the sensitive skin. "It's called jewel weed, JD. My ma used it on me when I was a kid." He grinned at the almost euphoric expression on the Southerner's face. "Feels like heaven, don't it, Ezra?"
"That, Mr. Wilmington, is quite an apt description. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for having such an excellent memory." Ezra's green eyes twinkled with mischief as he continued. "Especially since we all know just how long it's been since you were a child."
JD snorted at Ezra's comment and the look it produced on Buck's face.
"Well, that's gratitude for ya." Buck slapped the piece of stalk he'd been using on Ezra's neck into the gambler's hand. "Here... since you're feelin' so much better... smear this stuff on yourself. I'm goin' back to fishin'... which is what you two should be doin'." Hearing them trying to stifle their laughter as he walked away, Buck looked back at them and grinned. "Not that it's gonna do either of ya any good. Ya couldn't catch a prize winnin' fish if your lives depended on it." He ducked, but not in time to avoid the two mashed plant stems that immediately flew in his direction.
JD and Ezra hurried to join Buck, and soon all three poles were lined up together on the bank while their respective owners watched anxiously for the slightest twitch of their lines. The rest of the afternoon passed without incident... and without anymore fish. The trio finally gave up and headed back to camp, deciding their time would be better spent rustling up something to eat and then settling in for a nice, quiet card game before bed.
It was the middle of the night and the only sounds disturbing the silence of the campsite were the crackling of the fire and the soft rustling of the wind-blown leaves overhead. Suddenly a low moan drifted up from one of the bedrolls.
Ezra moved restlessly, arms and legs fighting against the imprisoning blankets as his head tossed back and forth, soft words of distress tumbling off his lips. "No... please, don't... 'Manda... oh God... 'Manda!" His eyes flew open as he cried out one last time, their green depths reflecting the terror that still had him in its grip.
Ezra stared around the campsite in confusion as he slowly came awake. Glancing to either side of him, he was relieved to see that his two companions still slept... he didn't want to have to explain what was wrong when he still wasn't sure himself. Rubbing his hands tiredly over his face, he eased himself into a half-sitting position, ever mindful of his still painful injury.
Damn it! The nightmares were back. It was the first one he'd had since just before his accident... that he could remember anyway. He had no memory of the week after his fall, so he couldn't be certain that he hadn't had one then. He'd wanted to ask someone, but he didn't want anyone to know he suffered from the hateful things, and couldn't remember enough about them to describe them even if he'd wanted to.
Ezra stared into the fire and tried to recall what he'd been dreaming. He was a child again... Uncle Matth--. Ezra grunted as his eyes slammed shut and his hands flew up to clutch at his forehead. He'd suddenly been struck by a blinding pain... a pain so intense it made his eyes water and his ears ring. Gasping softly, Ezra fell back on the pile of blankets, willing himself to lie perfectly still as he fought off the nausea that had started to churn in his stomach.
And then just as suddenly, the pain left. One minute it was there, tearing at his skull... the next it was almost completely gone... only a dull throbbing left to let him know it had been real and not just his imagination playing tricks on him. Well, that was a new twist to the nightmares... he'd never gotten a headache from them before. Experimentally, Ezra gently pushed at his memory, trying to recall something... anything... about his dream, but at the first increase in the pain still pulsing in his temples, he stopped. Closing his eyes, Ezra let his thoughts turn to other matters, completely erasing the unsettling feelings left by the nightmare... past card games, rousing 'discussions' he'd had with his friends, practical jokes that had been played... revenge...
Ezra drifted in and out of sleep for another hour, waking for the last time, according to his watch, at just after five... much too early again. Hopefully this was a habit he'd be able to break once they returned home. After arriving at the unwelcome conclusion that any *real* sleep was going to continue to elude him, Ezra decided he may as well get up and get a head start on the fishing. At least this way, his two so-called friends wouldn't have a chance to once more use him for their soul source of entertainment.
Ezra had gathered up his pole and the worms and was just leaving camp when he stopped and stared thoughtfully back at Buck and JD, a small smile tugging at his lips. Moving quietly back to where they lay, Ezra bent over and gently nudged Buck's shoulder. "Mr. Wilmington... Buck?"
Buck opened his eyes and peered blearily up at the gambler. "Ezra? What the hell are you doin' up this early?"
"I was unable to sleep any longer and decided to spend my time attempting to dethrone you from your current position as leader in our contest rather than to continue to toss and turn in my bedroll." Ezra saw the confusion in the older man's eyes and smiled as he explained further. "I just didn't want you to worry when you awoke and found me absent from camp."
Buck stared at him a moment longer and then finally nodded, closed his eyes and pulled the blanket over his head before mumbling sleepily, "Have a nice time, Ezra."
Ezra assured him he'd try, and turned and strolled out of camp, whistling softly as he made his way slowly down toward the pond.
JD couldn't believe how late it was when he finally awoke. Glancing around camp, he was surprised to see Ezra's bedroll empty and the gambler nowhere in sight.
JD raised up on one elbow and spotted Buck still huddled under his blankets. "Buck? Hey, Buck!" Not getting a response, the youth finally climbed out of his bedroll and crawled over to the older man. Shaking his shoulder, he tried once more to rouse him. "Come on, Buck... it's late. Wake up!"
Buck's head jerked up and he glared at JD as he continued to shake his shoulder. "JD... I'm up... now what the hell do you want?!"
JD stood up and shook his head. "Geez, Buck... ya don't gotta yell at me... I just wanted to see if ya knew where Ezra went."
Buck glanced at the empty space next to him and shrugged as he sat up and rubbed his hands roughly over his face. "I don't know... I sorta remember him wakin' me up when it was just gettin' light... I think he said somethin' 'bout goin' fishin'. I gotta be awake to understand those highfalutin words he uses sometimes."
JD frowned in the direction of the pond as he hurried to make a pot of coffee and warm up some biscuits for breakfast. "Figures he'd try to get a head start on us. Hurry up, Buck... we gotta get down there before he catches all the big ones."
Buck shook his head and laughed as he sat pulling on his boots. "Hell, JD... I'm sure he ain't gonna catch every last fish in the pond 'fore we can get down there. Now calm yourself down an' let me enjoy some coffee an' get woke up first."
JD wolfed down his food and then paced impatiently around the camp waiting for Buck to finish his.
"Damn, Kid... you're makin' me dizzy! Either sit your ass down or go an' join Ezra... I'll be along in just a minute." Buck sighed in relief when JD grabbed his pole and left. That boy gave a whole new meaning to the word 'impatient.'
Buck was just heading down toward the pond when he heard JD start yelling his name. The gunslinger forgot all about his sprained ankle when he heard the unmistakable sound of panic in the boy's voice. Dropping his pole and coffee mug, Buck took off running, his heart filling with dread as JD's anguished cries came louder and faster.
JD was sitting in the grass, frantically pulling off his boots when Buck finally got to him. He grabbed the boy's shoulder and forced him to look up at him.
"What's wrong, Kid?! Are ya hurt?!" Buck stood gasping for breath as he anxiously checked JD over, relieved to find no apparent injury. "Damn, JD... ya scared me half to death!"
JD jerked out of Buck's grasp and began rolling up his pants. "It's not me! It's Ezra!!"
Buck looked where the boy was pointing and finally understood JD's panic. Ezra's boots, coat, and hat lay in a pile at the edge of the pond along with his pole. Buck looked out over the still water and saw that the gambler's line was again tangled around the same partially submerged tree that he'd hooked before.
Buck's heart raced as he hurried to divest himself of his boots, entering the water only moments after JD. They started with the area closest to the log that held Ezra's tangled line, dipping down in the water to probe along the tree's length just in case he was hung up on the branches hidden beneath the surface.
"Lose somethin' , Gentlemen?"
Buck and JD froze when they heard the familiar southern drawl drift across the still morning air. Turning as one, they stared in shock at Ezra standing safe and dry on the bank. Relief flooded through them and they smiled and started to tell him how glad they were he was okay... until they saw the satisfied grin that appeared on his face as he gave them a two-fingered salute.
Ezra's smile grew as he watched the realization that they'd been had finally sink into his two friends. "May I remind you that I did give you fair warning of my intention to retaliate, and I must say... revenge is sweet."
Buck and JD watched Ezra's shoulders shake with the laughter that he could no longer contain and felt their anger grow.
"A joke? You think this is a joke?!" Buck and JD stared incredulously at the gambler, who was now collapsed in a heap on the grass, tears of laughter streaming down his face. "Damn it, Ezra! We thought you were dead!" JD's voice shook as worry and concern for his friend turned to anger.
Ezra tried to quit laughing, he knew he was just making them madder, but the sight of them standing there with their mouths hanging open, water and mud dripping off of them, was just too much for him. "Y'all l-look like a pair of drowned r-rats."
"Ezra Standish... you miserable son-of-a-bitch!!" Buck's enraged shout echoed through the clearing, instantly wiping the smile off the gambler's face.
Ezra's eyes widened in apprehension as he saw the two men start wading in his direction... their eyes glittering darkly... their faces flushed red with anger... their hands spasmodically clenching and unclenching as if they couldn't wait to wrap themselves around his neck. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet and started backing away, his hands held out in supplication and apologies tumbling off his lips.
"Gentlemen... I am truly sorry. I never thought you'd actually presume I had come to any harm. Honestly... it was just a joke... just a little payback for--" Ezra's rapid-fire chatter stopped suddenly when the back of his heel struck a small rock embedded in the ground, effectively halting his retreat and landing him squarely on his bruised backside.
For the second time in as many days, Ezra Standish, who rarely swore even when provoked, turned the air blue with another outburst of pain-filled cursing. After the initial shock wore off, Ezra flipped quickly over onto his stomach and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.
Buck and JD froze in their tracks, all their anger draining away when they saw Ezra hit the ground. Both men winced in sympathy as they watched him kneel in front of them, head hanging down between his shoulders, and holding his breath as he waited for the pain to ease.
"Uh... Ezra? Ya better breathe, Pard... your turnin' a mite blue there." Buck looked at JD and they both burst out laughing at the justice of it all.
Ezra raised his head, scowled at them and gasped, "Y'all just seem... to get so much... pleasure... outta seein' me in... pain. I think there's... somethin'... seriously wrong with the... pair of you."
JD shook his head at the gambler as he continued to laugh. "Oh, come on, Ezra... you know ya had it comin' this time."
Buck started to agree with the Kid when he saw the expression on Ezra's face change. An evil grin had slowly replaced his grimace of pain as he stared at the two of them. "What the hell ya grinnin' at, Ezra? Ya better not be plannin' anything else that stupid or--"
Ezra interrupted him, pointing at their legs and laughing softly. "Maybe y'all better quit enjoyin' *my* predicament and start worryin' about your own."
Buck and JD both looked down and their laughter suddenly stopped. "Shit... leeches."
JD turned white as a sheet and started begging Buck to get them off. Buck resignedly untied his bandana and handed it to the boy, then took him gently by the arm and led him over to the bushes Ezra had used days earlier.
Ezra carefully climbed to his feet and laughed as they hurried away. "Don't forget to check everywhere!"
"Shut up, Ezra!" Buck's and JD's voices drifted back to the smug Southerner as they disappeared behind the bushes.
Ezra stood gingerly rubbing his backside as he waited, grinning in anticipation.
Gathering up his belongings, Ezra headed slowly back up the hill, a smile of satisfaction on his handsome face. "Yes, indeed... revenge is most definitely sweet."
Ezra stood ready with a dry change of clothes for each of them when Buck and JD finally made it back to camp dressed only in their damp drawers... each sporting several of the red welts that Ezra still had on various parts of his body.
Buck glared at him as he snatched the pile of clothing out of his hands and headed for the woods. "Don't... say... a... word."
JD, who's face was even paler than usual, silently grabbed the other pile and stalked after Buck.
Ezra managed to smother his laughter as they walked away and turned to pour three mugs of coffee, adding a healthy slug from his flask to each one.
Their anger seemed to have abated by the time they returned, and they gratefully accepted the coffee from Ezra, nodding their thanks after tasting the brandy he'd added.
Buck took several long gulps to calm his nerves and then stared at the other two men. "I don't know 'bout you, but I think I've had pretty much all the fun I can stand for one trip. What do ya say we cut this short an' head on back to town?"
Ezra and JD readily agreed and immediately began packing their saddlebags. Before mounting their horses, they dug in their pockets and fished out the money they owed Buck for winning the bet and handed it to him.
Buck looked down at the money and then back at his friends. "I don't feel right takin' this... after all, it was my idea to go home early an' ya might've beat me if we'd stayed." But JD and Ezra insisted he take it, claiming he'd won it fair and square.
"Besides, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra added as he eased himself up onto Rebel, "it'll give Mr. Dunne and myself extra incentive to try harder the next time."
Buck and JD both looked at Ezra in surprise. "Next time?"
Ezra stared down at the ground for a minute and then shyly tipped his head up to look at his two friends. "Well, I was hopin' I might be allowed to accompany you on your next outing... if that's alright with you, of course."
Buck exchanged a grin with JD and slapped Ezra gently on the leg. "Hell, Ezra... you're welcome to tag along anytime ya want... just don't expect us to take it easy on ya like we did this time."
Ezra's look of shock was quickly replaced by an answering grin. "Thank you for the warning... I'll make sure I'm suitably prepared next time."
Buck noticed Ezra's wince of pain as he shifted carefully in the saddle. "You sure you're gonna be okay? Maybe ya should let me--"
Ezra held up a hand to stop him. "Please, Mr. Wilmington... we've already been over this... I will not be carted back to town in the back of a wagon. It's completely undignified."
Buck sighed and followed JD over to their horses. Giving Ezra one last long-suffering look, he boosted his bone-weary body up into the saddle. "Okay, it's your decision... but I still say you're gonna be sorry."
Ezra merely nodded and nudged his horse into a slow walk as they headed back toward home.
They were about halfway home when Buck turned his horse off into a small stand of trees and announced they were going to camp there for the night. He simply couldn't stand seeing Ezra in so much pain any longer. The gambler had quickly discovered that it was much too uncomfortable for him to ride sitting down for any length of time, so he was forced to ride standing in the stirrups most of the way to ease his aching bottom. This, in turn, caused his legs to cramp up and forced them to stop every few miles so that he could get down and walk off the painful muscle spasms.
"Mr. Wilmington, I assure you I can make it the rest of the way home tonight. Perhaps if I pad my saddle with a blanket--" Ezra tried to reason with the older man, just wanting to get home and into a hot bath, but Buck was adamant.
"Forget it, Ezra... we're campin' here an' that's all there is to it." He smiled up at the Southerner. "Unless you want to wait here while I go fetch that wagon?"
Ezra quickly left his saddle and began helping JD set up camp. "This will do just fine, Mr. Wilmington... I fancied one last night under the stars anyway."
Buck chuckled as he began taking care of the horses. "Somehow I knew you'd see it my way, Ezra."
It was just past noon when the three exhausted fishermen finally rode back into Four Corners.
Chris and Vin were sitting in front of the saloon enjoying a mug of coffee, observing their slow progress down main street. When the threesome got close enough for them to get a good look, Vin whistled softly and yelled over his shoulder into the saloon for Nathan and Josiah. When they came to stand in the batwing doors, he nodded up the street. "Looks like the mighty fishermen had a rough trip."
Nathan frowned as he watched the three riders, and moved quickly out onto the boardwalk. "Is Ezra ridin' standin' up? What the hell did that fool do to hisself now?"
Buck threw up a silencing hand as he rode up, and then slowly dismounted. They noticed he was favoring his left leg and scratching at some kind of red welt on the side of his neck. "Don't even ask. We'll tell ya all about it later, but right now... I need a drink."
JD nodded, for once in total agreement with Buck. "All I want is a good, hot meal... an' it sure ain't gonna be fish." The boy's face sported several scratches and a large, purple bruise that ran the length of his jaw. He also had the same red welts on his arms and neck as Buck did. The men glanced quickly at Ezra and saw that all three men had those same identical marks, with Ezra also sporting some smaller spots on his neck and chin.
Both men moved to stand beside Ezra's horse and reached up to steady the gambler as he very slowly lowered himself to the ground. After making sure he was going to be alright, Buck and JD headed for the saloon.
Nathan saw the careful way Ezra was moving and had just opened his mouth to ask what had happened when Buck put his hand on the healer's shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
"Leave 'im alone, Nathan. He's fine." Buck held his gaze until he was sure he understood and then nodded. He turned before entering the saloon and waited to make sure Ezra was going to make it across the street okay.
Chris watched as the Southerner limped slowly away. "Where ya headed, Ezra?"
Ezra kept walking as he answered, afraid if he stopped, he'd never get going again. "I find myself in serious need of a nice, long, hot bath, Mr. Larabee."
Chris glanced at the others and grinned. He knew he probably shouldn't, but it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. "But, Ezra... I thought you hated baffs?"
Ezra did stop this time as a strange feeling of deja vu washed over him. He stared first at the bathhouse, and then back at Chris. The comical look of confusion on his face had them all struggling not to laugh... even Buck and JD. <Baff? Did Chris just say... 'baff'?> Ezra opened his mouth to ask the other man to repeat himself, hesitated, and finally decided it was something he just didn't want to know.
Shaking his head wearily, Ezra continued on across the street... determined to let the soothing bath aid him in forgetting his aches and pains, and the strange memories that Chris's words had evoked. And yet, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't block out the small voice that seemed to echo through his mind... 'I hate baffs.'
|On to: Painful Memories|
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoyed this story.
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