Once In A Lifetime
by Angela B.
Back to: Once In A Lifetime Index
Ezra was feeling fine. In fact he was feeling great. It was a warm, sunny day, not too hot with just the right amount of breeze whispering about to keep one comfortable. A perfect day to cap off a perfect weekend. After that business with Stutz that ended with him being shot, Chris had decided the man deserved a compensation of sorts for taking the bullet meant from Mary. He also felt slightly bad for Standish, though he'd never admit it, because the gambler didn't get to keep the money after all. For this reason the leader had decided to let Ezra be messenger boy, running some papers to the sheriff in River's Bend, and giving the peacekeeper a couple of extra days to remain and enjoy himself in a card game or two.
Ezra had truly enjoyed his visit to the metropolis; well, metropolitan compared to Four Corners. He had indulged in a long hot bath after his arrival, put on his clean suit, found the most lucrative game table in town, and stayed put for the entire time the saloon was open. He knew he had drawn his share of attention and, since he didn't have six men watching his back, had kept a watchful eye for potential trouble, but none had come. At the end of his stay, he had saddled up and headed back to Four Corners, feeling much better than he had in a long while.
Unknown to him though, the gambler had drawn some attention that had no plans of going away. Bill Earnest and his brothers were regulars in the town's holding cells. The local constable and the Earnest brothers had run-ins that you could almost set your watch by. Bill had been in the same tavern that Ezra had occupied over the last couple of days and had kept watch on his next prey. Thinking he was nothing more than a traveling dandy and gambler, Bill figured no one would be missing the man and set up plans to endow himself and his brothers with everything this man had on him.
Chaucer plodded along at a relaxed gait, neither he nor his human being in any hurry. They were less than ten miles from home and would be there long before dark. They had stopped earlier beneath one of the many trees that dotted the trail and had taken a long break, drinking from the clear-running stream and resting a bit one last time before returning home. Ezra was relaxed in the saddle, keeping his eyes alert for any trouble and letting Chaucer pick the pace. It was a startle, then, when two men rode out of the trees on horseback. Quickly finding himself stalled by these men, Chaucer heard the soft reassurances of his master as he was pulled to an abrupt halt and quietly commanded to stand still.
Ezra was annoyed with himself to put it mildly. He hadn't thought he'd been so lax that these men should have gotten the jump on him without the slightest bit of warning on his part. Gathering the reins in his hands, he kept Chaucer still while he worked over possible solutions in his mind.
"Good day, sirs," Ezra greeted the two men, slipping into one of his many personalities. "Is there a basis for this ghastly, abrupt intrusion in my travels?" Ezra asked calmly, trying to slow his heart down and ignore the bells going off in his head.
"Huh?" the younger man said.
"He wants to know why we stopped him, David," a slightly older version with red hair explained.
"Sirs, I do have places to be and thing to attend to, so if you would just be so kind as let me pass, I would be most grateful," Ezra said.
"Sure will. Right after you hand over all that cash you won back there at that game table," the younger boy said.
Ezra let out a long-suffering sigh. Why was it every time he got ahead in life someone came along and tried to take it away from him? Popping out his derringer, he smiled. "Why don't we rethink that proposal and you just let me by?" Ezra said, his eyes taking on a harder glint.
"You think you gonna be able to shoot both of us, mister?," The older one said asked
"I don't wish to harm either one of you, but a man does have to do what is necessary to protect himself," Ezra said.
"Well, you might shoot both of us, but what are you gonna do about them?," the youngest man said mockingly, as he nodded to someone behind the gambler.
Halfway turning in his saddle, Ezra was surprised to find an older man had ridden up beside him, the oldest Earnest brother. Whirling around in the other direction, he found a man on the other side and one behind. His stomach dropped and his gut twitched violently. He quickly figured the odds of getting out of this predicament with his money and his life. The odds didn't look good for his money and not that great for his life, either. This was going to turn out very bad. There had been a time when facing five men would not have caused such a state within him, but after three years of having six other men at his back, he realized it had become a comfort. A comfort that he now knew had taken an edge, albeit slight, from him.
"Now, sir," Bill said mocking the southerner's voice, "I don't take people threatening to killing my brothers lightly. I don't like it at all."
Ezra swallowed hard. If it was the money they wanted, then he would begrudgingly give it up. 'A dead man can't own a saloon,' he thought silently. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, let's not get hasty here. I merely misperceived the business transaction. I did not recall this being a toll road before, but evidently you wise gentleman have seen a visionary way of procuring income for you and your family. I, of course, would like to add to that income," Ezra said as smoothly as his dry mouth would let him.
Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a nicely stacked wad of cash and with trembling fingers, handed it towards the obvious leader. Bill Earnest watched in satisfaction as the trembling fingers handed over the cash, thinking how scared this sissified man was of him. Little did the outlaw know the trembling fingers had to do less with being scared and more with Ezra fighting the ingrained notion to keep what was his, and hating the thought of turning over hard won money. It was just unnatural for the gambler to lose money, no matter what the circumstances were. Watching the man, who Ezra guessed to be Buck's age, but with none of the man's finesse, finger his money. The gambler hoped it would be enough to pay for his passage away from these barbarians. The sneer on the man's face told him differently.
"Boy's, I think we need to teach Mr. Fancy Pants here that it's not nice to point guns at people," Earnest said as he sidled up next to Ezra. Before the gambler could block the move, the horseman was kicking out his leg, knocking Ezra from his saddle. The gambler threw out his hand out of instinct. He landed on his side and heard the discernable pop and felt the rising pain in his shoulder. He laid there for a minute, trying to catch his breath, when he felt himself being yanked to his feet. Pushing Ezra toward one the other men, Bill said, "String him up."
The words hit Ezra's brain like a two-by-four. Panic set in and the natural fight or flight kicked in. Ezra began struggling against the men who were roughly dragging him to a nearby tree. He held his breath against the scream of pain as he jacket was yanked off and winced at the sound of his upper clothes being ripped free. Absently, he calculated the amount it would cost to replace the clothing. Just as quickly, he found his hands bound separately and stretched over his head and tied to a branch. He stared out at his captors and caught the youngest one's eyes. Ezra would guess his age below twenty, maybe seventeen or eighteen. The kid was absolutely scared. Ezra watched in absurd fascination as the youngest skidded around his brothers in an animated flight that would make their young sheriff seem down-right sedate trying to convince them not to do this. The kid seemed to have a sense of right and wrong, Unfortunately, Ezra thought, he was going up against four men whom it appeared didn't have that quality.
He squeezed his eyes shut and held back the scream as the burning fire radiated down his arm and into his chest, setting off an equally screaming pain in his head as his body dragged down on his tied his arms. Fighting to regain his breath, he closed his eyes and tried to force his mind elsewhere, like the many times before when he found himself in undesirable positions. He had seen this particular position way too many times as a child on whatever plantation he had landed on when Maude felt the need to depart from his presence and the landowner felt it necessary to punish one of his slaves. Ezra never did have what it took to watch one of the reprehensible proceedings, even though his presence was demanded. He always managed to divert his eyes elsewhere, unfortunately he couldn't do the same for his hearing or his heart. He refused to remember other times that this position reminded him of. Though expected, the stinging sensation hit him unawares as the whip lashed across his back. His eyes popped opened and his body arched away from the pain. A cry of startled pain ripped from his throat.
"Oh, Mr. Prissy didn't like that?" Earnest sneered.
No sooner had the peacekeeper gasped for breath than another lashing came and then another. He kept the pain locked up inside of him throughout the rest of his punishment, not allowing the desperadoes to have the satisfaction of hearing how much pain he was in. He kept his head up and his gaze locked on some point beyond Earnest's eyesight. He kept reminding himself that it would eventually end. Just when he thought he was going to pass out, he heard the sweetest words he thought he had ever heard. "That's enough, boys," Bill commanded. Ezra's mind was in a fog blanketed by pain. It was all he could do to keep breathing
After Bill had called a halt to the whipping, the five men began divvying up the gambler's possessions. Young David had innocently claimed the proud steed the man had been riding, setting off a course of action that would cause great suffering for not only the southerner, but also the six other peacemakers.
"You're too young to own such a magnificent beast. I'll take the horse, you can have his fancy jacket," The second to the oldest claimed.
Ezra's belongings were soon called for, fought over, and the rest of his clothing divested from his body. In a haste to remove his finely made pants, Earnest yanked off Ezra's boots, the money folded up inside fell out during the rough handling causing all to immediately stop what they were doing. "Little twerp was holding out on us," Earnest hissed angrily. "Check the rest of his belongings. See what else we can find," he ordered.
Soon Ezra's blanket, the contents of his saddlebags, and clothing, with their pockets turned inside out, lay scattered out around them. They had found two more rolls of money. The oldest brother was seething; this fancy nobody had tried to get the better of him and had almost succeeded. "Jimmy, I think it's time you taught your horse a lesson in jumping," Bill growled out as he stormed towards the semi-conscious gambler, still hanging from his wrists, and stripped down to his cotton bottoms.
"What?" Jimmy, the second-to-the-youngest asked in confusion.
"Just mount up!" Earnest yelled. "You two come help me take him down," he ordered the twin brothers. "We ain't got a fence, so we's just gonna have to improvise," he said with a wicked edge to his voice.
The other two, Rodger and Randy, stepped forward and helped release the hanging man from the tree, not bothering to care as he fell in a heap to the ground with a sickening moan. The two brothers stretched him out on the ground, the dirt irritating the fresh welts on the gambler's back. Earnest, ignoring the moans coming from the man on the ground, took a rope from his saddle, tied the gambler's ankles together, while Rodger tied his wrists in the same fashion as his ankles. He ordered the two brothers holding Ezra down to mount up on their own horses and each take a rope. They soon had Ezra stretched out between the two horses. Ezra, having starting to come to his senses, knew instantly something was wrong when his legs were bound together and began fighting the new bondage. Dismissing the whistle he heard, he continued to struggle until he was felt himself being lifted up off the ground by the flesh-eating ropes. The first kick of the horse's hoofs to his mid-section sent the air rushing out of his lungs, ribs to snap and a new kind of pain filled him. For the first time in a very long time, Ezra wished he would just die.
When he realized death would not be instantaneous, the southern gentleman struggled to survive, to remain in control over his mind and his breathing. Sometime during his struggle, he had felt a pull on his leg and a popping in his hip. The searing pain caused him to lose his precious grip on reality and he became lost in a world rife with pain. The gambler lost count of how many hits his body took as it soon became apparent that the five men were taking turns using their mounts to jump over his tired and abused body. He never really comprehended when the little game of the men's ended, letting go of the control over his mind and letting it slip into that place where he existed, but did not live. The pain kept rolling over him in engulfing waves. His mind coaxed him to give up and just let go and a majority of his body wanted to desperately, but a deeper part whispered to hold on. He couldn't put a finger on it, but the voice sounded harsh, demanding and bought to mind the blond gunslinger with hard, penetrating, green eyes back in Four Corners.
David had not wanted to participate in his brother's decision to horsewhip the stranger, but was too afraid to actually balk and stand up to his brother. He had offered to hold onto the rope binding the legs the entire time, so he wouldn't have to participate in the torturing of this man. This was beyond anything he had ever imagined his brothers capable of doing. He knew they had a mean streak and were a bit wild, but he never thought it was possible for them to kill a man in such a lingering and monstrous way. His offer had been refused and he had been ordered to do as he was told. The sound of his horse's hoofs connecting with the body stretched out before him sickened his stomach.
After a time, Earnest called a halt to the fun his brothers and he were having. Checking on the man laid out before him, he could barely discern the chest moving up and down. "Throw the body over yonder," he commanded, nodding his head to the stand of trees they had hid in earlier.
The set of twins rode over to the side of a small gully; dragging the bonded body between them, not caring that Ezra's head was bumping the ground with each step of the horses' hooves. His sweat drenched hair sweeping the dirt, making unnatural patterns. With the first impact, Ezra's consciousness rose and each ensuing impact with the ground was like a nail being driven through his skull. The gambler wished for the darkness, but was denied the blissful pleasure. Taking turns, each brother leaned over and lifted their end of the body, so they could remove their ropes without dismounting. Ezra would have moaned if he had the ability, but it seemed not even his natural reflexes were working properly. Not liking that the body was still in sight, Rodger called back over his shoulder, "David, get over here and pushed this piece of garbage over into the ravine." The youngest hung his head in sorrow, but followed their directions nonetheless. Walking over to the still body, he gave a small push and watched in sad horror as the body bounced down the side of incline. Ezra hit the small stream of water at the bottom of the shallow culvert, the jolt of cold water hitting his abused body bought hard jerks that sent endless ripples of pain throughout. For a while, he thought he was going to suffocate. It seemed all the ribs were now broken and hampering his breathing. As the body stopped jerking, he finally slipped into the darkness that granted him relief.
Once David joined his brothers, Earnest said, "Think we should split up for a bit." He began peeling off paper bills to give to each brother. "We'll met back in River's Bend in a couple of weeks. Stay out of trouble and keep your mouths shut." Aiming his gazed directly at the youngest brother, the last statement was an order and not meant to be taken lightly.
The other brothers nodded their agreement, mounted up and went their own way. David needed a stiff drink and didn't particularly want to be around any of his brothers at the moment. Turning his horse towards the nearest town, he only had thoughts of getting drunk and forgetting what he had just seen and participated in. Three hours later, he arrived in Four Corners. Handing his reins over without thought to the liveryman, he went in search of a saloon.
Chris sat back in his chair. A beer, his only requirement to wash away the thirst the warm day had caused. A slight smile played across his lips as he listened to the banter of JD and Buck. The ladies' man was trying to teach the younger man ways in which JD could court a certain young lady, namely Casey. JD, of course, refused to acknowledge any feelings towards the young woman and was becoming quite agitated with his older 'brother'. Vin looked over at the darkly dressed leader and shot him a smile. Chris winced, knowing Vin was about to up the ante. Before he got the chance, the tracker took note of a young man, followed by Josiah, entering the drinking establishment,
Vin caught the look on Josiah's face and sat up straighter. He was not the only one who had noticed the young man's clothes.
Sitting up straighter, Buck and JD quit their haranguing and looked around. The two noticed the same thin boy as the other three did. The newcomer making his way to the bar was wearing black pants made from material other than breech cloth that the men around here wore and an all too familiar purple gaming jacket.
"What's the odds of there being more than one coat like that in this territory," Buck asked quietly.
"Not any," Chris said as he stood.
"Maybe, Ezra lost it in a poker game. It's been known to happen before," JD suggested.
"JD, look at that boy. Does he look like the type that could take Ezra in a game of poker?," Buck said, as he too, rose from his chair.
JD winced at how once again he had been able to make himself appear to be quite the 'kid' with such a stupid question. His self-pity was disrupted by Chris' silent departure from the table. His men following him, Chris walked up to the young man gulping down his refreshment. David had the uneasy feeling of danger and put down his glass. Slowly turning his gaze to the man standing next to him, he literally jumped back in fear from the danger those green eyes were shooting at him. Bumping into someone, he turned to apologize, only to find himself staring up at the biggest man, besides his oldest brother, with the coldest gray eyes he had ever seen. Slowly glancing around he found himself surrounded and knew the fear the man he had left for dead earlier must have felt.
"Where's the man those clothes belong to?" Chris asked in a quiet deadly voice.
David gulped. "Don't know what you're talking about, mister. Picked these clothes up in River's Bend," David lied unconvincingly.
The young man suddenly found himself up against the wall staring into those cold gray eyes. A shiver ran down is spine and he tried to breath around the hand throttling his throat. He was beginning to sympathize more and more with the victim he had just dumped over into the gully. David cursed himself for choosing the closest town. He should have ridden further like his brothers had chosen to do, but at that moment he had only wanted to wash away the memories of that green-eyed man being tortured. He glanced down at the jacket and new pants he was wearing. He had only won the clothes out of default, since all his older brothers were too big for them. He had seen it as a consolatory prize after losing the horse to Bill. Now he wished he, too, had been born big like his brothers, instead of the runt they so often called him.
"Man asked you question and you're going to answer it right this time," Josiah said harshly, squeezing his grip a little more.
"All right," David gurgled out. He felt the smallest release on his throat and said, "I stopped this dandy cheater a ways out of town. Took his belongings...that's…that's it," he said pleadingly.
JD stepped forward. "Mister, even I can read to it than that. Now tell us what you did to Ezra," the youngest said heatedly, trying to squelch the rolling in his stomach. He might not have the years his friends had of living out here in the wild, but he knew something terrible had happened to the gambler.
"Okay, I followed him out of River's Bend and got the drop on him. I tied him up and took his clothes," David said, not revealing the rest of the story for fear of dying himself after playing a major role in the death of the dandy…whether it was from these men or from his own brothers.
The black leader looked at each of his men and knew what he knew, the kid was still holding back on him and was afraid of someone more than he was of Chris. "Let's go," Chris ordered, stepping towards the swinging doors. Without turning, he said quietly, "And bring him along."
Vin grabbed the man from Josiah roughly and said, "I'll tend to him. Best go find Nathan. Likely we're gonna need him."
Josiah nodded once and left in ground eating strides to find the healer. His stomach doing flip-flops at the thought of what they might find. All knew that the young man had only told half the story, and Ezra wasn't the type that one got the drop on and he just didn't hand over his belongings because he was asked. He had proven that when they had that run in with Guy Royal's men and Ezra wouldn't hand over his jacket. Man liked to have gotten his jaw broke over a piece of clothing. Nope, if Ezra lost his clothing there was a bigger reason than the one the boy had just given.
Before following Chris, Buck slapped his youngest brother on the back and said softly; "Best hitch up a wagon and follow along."
JD turned to face Buck and saw the seriousness and fear emanating from those blue eyes and nodded once before heading out to get the wagon. Five minutes later the six men, plus David, were heading out of town. With the pace Chris had set, it didn't take the five riding peacekeepers as long to get to the site as it had taken David to get to town, but it was still nearly dusk before they came to the spot. JD was bringing up the rear in the wagon and was delayed a bit by it.
The cold water rushing over him felt good to the abused body once it got over the shock. Ezra had lost consciousness when he had finally landed at the bottom of the gully. Now the water was turning cold again and although it felt good, he knew he had to get at least his head out of the shallow stream. Raising his head in thought of moving backwards a bit, the simple act bough forth a rush of pain. Before he could stop it, a scream tore loose from his already raw throat. He didn't bother wondering about that. His new goal was to ride out the fire pulsating through his body. When Ezra finally realized the pain wasn't going subside he also realized it wasn't growing either. With fortitude he never believed he had, he thought through his actions and then, pushing up with his good arm, in one movement he threw himself back out of the water. He wasn't sure what caused the most hellacious pain, the thrusting upwards of his body or the falling to the ground afterwards. The pain ripped through the gambler taking him back into oblivion. Ezra didn't care.
David had balked at being towed along, but one glare from the longhaired peacekeeper and he mounted up reluctantly. He had only been able to give an approximated guess of where the incident had taken place and the rest had been left to Vin to backtrack the young man's journey. Coming up on a spot of misplaced dirt with an infinite number of tracks all around, Vin halted the group and handed the trailing horse's reins over to Josiah before scouting out the area. "Looks like this is the place," he said.
Something in the tracker's face caused Chris to look more sharply at the tracker. "What is it?" he asked.
"Tracks everywhere,' Vin said, looking up at the leader and waiting for the words to be processed. There had been more than just the young kid who had gotten the drop on Ezra. No wonder Ezra had been so easily disrobed. "Looks like maybe five or six. Horses were jumping around here quite a bit," Vin said, puzzled by the signs he was reading.
Josiah didn't care what the signs said, he just wanted to find Ezra. Yanking the young man, who was still mounted, around to face him, Josiah asked in a deadly voice, "Where is he?"
"I…I…I don't know. Maybe he wandered off or something," David said, the sweat ran down his spine and the glare he was receiving caused him to shift uncomfortably.
Chris, who had dismounted, took two steps over to the horse, grabbed David away from Josiah and had him kneeling on the ground with his gun pointed between the two scared eyes. "Where?" he demanded. The rage was rolling off the blond like heat off the desert in July.
David closed his eyes and pointed to the trees. "O…Over there," he stammered out.
David was dragged to his feet by Buck as the other four men raced ahead into the trees and stopped at the edge of a small ravine. Shock filled the men, making them unable to move closer to the prone body lying at the bottom of the gully by the shallow stream of water. Each man trying to wrap their minds around the scene they were seeing. Nathan was the first to come back to his senses as he rushed down to the unmoving, bloodied body. The others remained, unable to move from their position for a moment longer, before, too, hurled down the small slope, sliding to a stop a couple of feet away from their motionless friend. Chris, his heart beating wildly in his chest, and with fear forming in his heart, finally found his voice and asked in a quietness that carried like a cannon. "Nathan?"
The healer had run down to his friend and carefully knelt down beside him, repeating a quick prayer over and over. Feeling for the vein in the lily-white neck, he gulped in air as he felt his world spin slightly. The question Chris asked shook him out of his slight shock. Looking up at the statuesque men, he asked sharply, "Where's JD with that wagon?"
Buck, still standing up-top with David, looked over his shoulder and could barely discern the outline of the wagon. Turning back to look down at Nathan and his friend, he responded, "He's coming. Probably another ten minutes," Buck answered.
"Hurry him up!" Nathan commanded, the healer taking charge of the situation. "The rest of you get over here and help me!"
That was all it took. Buck yanked David over to the same tree that Ezra had been tied to hours earlier and manhandled him into a similar position before the mustached man grabbed his horse and mounted in motion, running full out towards JD and the wagon. The sight of his beaten friend burned into his mind.
Chris, Josiah and Vin made their way over to Nathan and a still Ezra, lying on his back. The close up look of their friend sickened them: the bloody lashes across his back; the dark black bruising covering all the right side, already spreading out to encompass both the back and front; the distinguishable hoof prints embedded into the pale skin; the twisted way his right leg was bent. Chris and Josiah had to close their eyes briefly while Vin turned his head, each gasping for air and calming rattled nerves. Nathan, already having come to terms somewhat with the look of the gambler, waited a few seconds before saying quietly, "We gotta get him out of here and back up there."
Three heads nodded. Sucking up their emotions, they each knelt down and prepared to carry their friend out. They realized there wasn't a place to put their hands that wouldn't cause some kind of pain. They gritted their teeth and, after turning Ezra onto his back, slid their hands as gently as possible underneath their friend. Chris put one arm under Ezra's neck, so that when he was lifted, the gambler's head would roll slightly back into his arm and not hang down and possibly choke him. His other arm went under the dislocated shoulder. Nathan moved to the opposite side and reinforced Chris position. Josiah slid his arms under the hips on the dislocated side, keeping the leg from moving any more than possible. Vin got down at the end and gathered the ankles. The entire action elicited a small groan from an unconscious Ezra.
"Easy, Ezra. It'll only last a minute," soothed Chris, whispering into the gambler's ear. "Just hang on."
Without counting, the men acted as one. Slowly, they lifted Ezra up and trudged back up the sandy slope. Going as steady as possible, they finally reached the top. Nathan, letting go of his position, clambered over the edge first and took Ezra's head in his hands. With unquestionable resolve, the remaining three men dug in their heels and walked straight up and over the ridge, trying to jostle their comrade as little as possible. Carrying the limp body over to rest under the shady tree, Chris, Vin and Josiah held Ezra steady as Nathan retrieved his bedroll and spread it out on the cool grass. Laying their friend down on his back, each one was thankful that it was late spring and not winter. After lying Ezra down, Vin went to Nathan's horse and retrieved the medical pouch. Walking back to the group, he sat down and unrolled the traveling bag and began laying out the supplies. Josiah started a campfire and lit some torches, sticking them in the ground around the small group to give Nathan as much light as possible before taking up the position near the brown-haired head.
The healer looked down on his beaten friend and sighed inwardly at the mess his friend was in. Nathan no longer startled at the word friend when connecting it to Ezra. In the beginning, their relationship had been strained and they still got into it sometimes, just like friends do, but they had a more even keel kind of friendship now. The two were opposite ends of the spectrum, but then again most of the men he rode with were opposites of each other, they also had a great deal in common. It was this commonality they shared that made them such a strong force. To lose one part of that force would weaken their strength. Nathan ghosted his hands along the side of the injured man's ribcage; the edges of whip marks could barely be seen. It looked like Ezra and him just found one more thing to have in common. That they shared this had nothing but sorrow in Nathan's eyes.
Chris knelt beside Ezra, subconsciously taking the limp hand in his. The strong leader watched, mesmerized, as the gambler struggled for each shallow breath of air. The blond tried to will those lungs not to fail. Ezra's eyes briefly fluttered as he struggled for breath. The scene touched off something deep in the leader's heart, and he leaned down so that his face was next to Ezra's. "Don't you quit on me, Ezra! You hear me? You can't die until I tell you you can. You got that?" Chris said forcibly. Ezra's eyes fluttered open for the briefest of moments, but the exchange was there. Ezra would hold on as long as he could. Chris squeezed the hand he held firmly. "Don't give up," the blond added more quietly.
Nathan's gentle fingers ghosted along the battered body with featherlike touches, mentally marking all the bruises and hoof prints. Using, what he considered was his limited knowledge of human anatomy, he tried to estimate what possible internal damage his friend was suffering. As his examination continued, he touched the dislocated hip, eliciting a moan from the unconscious man. Without thinking, Nathan mumbled an apology, "Sorry, Ez."
"Hip is out of place," the healer added unnecessarily. It had been obvious when they found Ezra, that the odd angle of the leg indicated displacement.
After a short, but complete examination, Nathan was a somewhat overwhelmed as to where to start first; the injuries were so numerous and great. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up into Vin's calming blue eyes. "One thing at a time," the tracker said quietly.
Nathan nodded and blinked back the tears that threatened to blur his vision. Turning off his personal side, he forced the professional to the front. Ezra needed the healer to be unattached and do what was best for him, even if that meant causing more pain. Skimming the broken body again, Nathan decided it would be best to set the dislocated bones first. Infection could easily start on it's own and with so many open wounds, it only compounded the possibility. Gangrene sitting in then was very likely. Taking a deep breath, Nathan looked at his oldest friend and made the suggestion openly, "Best set the bones first."
Josiah stared back at Nathan. The older man could discern the pain hidden in the depths of the healer's eyes. The one-time slave no more wanted to do this than he did, but it was the only thing to do and they both knew it. Josiah gave a sharp nod of his head. To the missionary's son it was just another way of serving penance for an imaginary crime he had convicted himself a long time ago of committing: helping his friends when they were injured; taking their anger when they had nowhere else to vent I; suffering through their pain with them was the least he could do for what he figured he had done in the past. Josiah repositioned his knees and held Ezra's upper torso, while Vin straddled the prone legs, making sure not to touch the disjointed one.
Vin had been more than relieved when Josiah had silently agreed to be the one to hold Ezra. The tracker had had to do a lot of patching up wounds when he was both a buffalo hunter and a bounty hunter and, though blood never really bothered him, the sounds of bones scraping together raked on his nerves something fierce. He could do it when he had to, but he wouldn't volunteer if someone else was around that would do for him. Trying to force himself not to listen for the pop signifying the bones had been moved back in place, he glanced over at the blond leader. He shook his head sadly, that poor David would be lucky to survive the trip back to Four Corners. With a three count, Nathan popped the shoulder back in place. Chris continued to hold the limp hand and will his strength into his friend.
Ezra, weakened by what he had endured already, could only manage a whimper no louder than a breath. Inwardly he pleaded for his tormentors to stop the pain. The four men watched Ezra barely be able to toss his head to the side in an effort to get away from the pain, and felt their resolve breaking. It would be difficult to hurt the man any further knowing instinctively he was needing a reprieve. None of them moved as Josiah bent over his friend and wiped the sweaty hair back out of the closed green eyes. Crooning like one does to an injured animal, Josiah whispered heartening encouragement to Ezra. "Shhh, Ezra. It's Josiah. We're all here. We're going to take you home real soon, promise. Nathan's just got to do a few things first before we can move you." Not knowing whether Ezra understood anything he was saying, Josiah continued to talk while he and the others restored their nerves to continue. "Going to be all right. You got the best doctor there is and Nathan and us are going to take good care of you. You just go back to sleep, okay?"
Not knowing if it was the words, his voice, or the fact that Ezra just didn't have any strength left, Josiah watched as Ezra took a breath and let his body go lax. Nathan normally would have strapped the shoulder in place, but knew they would have to tend the wounds on his back first, so he merely let the arm drape across the bare chest. A few seconds later, the preacher looked up to find Buck and JD standing next to them. He noticed the easy-going man was decidedly rigid with tension. The blue eyes that normally danced with life and mischief were now blazing with anger and worry. JD's had a look of absolute horror etched so deeply into his face, Josiah had no doubt this one moment would forever change the young man. JD would finally realize the true cruelty man was capable of committing on one another. Speaking softly, the big man said, "JD, why don't you make sure there's enough padding in the wagon for Ezra here. You know how the man likes his comfort?" The last said to lighten the situation a fraction. JD only nodded before moving off, almost in a state of shock. Buck moved to the other side, opposite of where Chris sat.
As JD followed through with Josiah's orders he recalled how he had watched the men, as he urged the team pulling the wagon to a faster pace, dismount and run a piece before stopping. He had kept a visual account as Nathan and then the others disappeared, presumably into a ravine hidden by the tall grass. Buck had then yanked the young man to the tree and bound him before jumping his horse and race back towards him. He had known to hurry, and Buck flying back to him only reinforced that idea. He already slapped the horses into a flat out run. Once Buck had reached him and reined his horse around next to the wagon, Jd had caught a glimpse of the normally jovial man's face. No words were needed. The look on Buck's face had said it all. They raced towards their friends in silence.
When the two had finally reached the spot, JD jumped to the ground and hurriedly ground tied the team and then ran to catch up to Buck as the pair arrived at their friend's side together. JD had never seen the likes of man's cruelty before to that extent. The dark blue and purple bruises, that looked almost black were rapidly spreading over the entire length of the man, were mind-boggling. He had yet to see the stripes covering the gambler's back. The easterner was never so glad for a job than when Josiah's deep voice penetrated his thoughts and gave him something to do.
Once arriving to work on the bedding in the wagon, JD could no longer control his rolling stomach and stepped around to the other side. He wanted no witnesses to his weakness. He was sure none of the other men had lost their guts. The sheriff wiped his mouth and went back to his job. His hands trembled as they worked to fluff up the mostly flattened mattress and blankets that he'd grabbed out of the livery. Tiny had taken to leaving the material handy after the seven became peacekeepers as a joke in the beginning. The joke being started that with that many guns around, someone was going to get hurt. They just never knew how right the large man was going to be.
Josiah had moved down to Ezra's waist, letting Vin move around to the other side by Chris. They all knew each others' weaknesses when it came to things like this and the preacher didn't hold it against the tracker, he had his own weaknesses. Josiah pressed down the torso, while Nathan held Ezra's leg under the knee with one hand and lower down the leg with the other. Buck, taking his place next to Josiah, held down Ezra's head with the palm of one hand. JD, coming back to the group, turned around the other way. He knew what was coming and knowing how unbearable the pain must feel. The young sheriff cringed at the weak cry Ezra gave up. Swiping at the tears that flowed, JD promised revenge on those that did this to his friend.
The five men surrounding Ezra had to take some deep breaths to prepare themselves for what they had to do. Knowing they had to straighten out the leg for their friend's sake didn't make the job any easier. Buck's insides were in complete turmoil. Only a handful of times in his life had he felt this engulfed in emotions. Like Josiah, Buck found it easy to express his feelings with words. Talking constantly to the gambler, he didn't care if Ezra knew what he was saying as long as the man understood he wasn't alone and was among friends. Looking over to where Vin sat, Buck knew the longhaired tracker felt no less pain than any of them and would find his own way to express those feelings to Ezra later; probably when Ezra would need it the most.
Buck tried not to inspect his friend's body too much. He had seen this before; back in Big Sheephorn country where cattlemen and sheep ranchers had taken their feuds to a new level of hatred. Very few men had survived the brutal punishment and just a couple of them came out all right in the end. The others were either crippled for life or never right in their minds again. Buck clenched down tighter to the leg he was holding. Ezra was going to be one of the few that made it all the way back in one piece. He and the other five men surrounding him would make sure of it.
Josiah gripped the body a little tighter, whispering words of encouragement to the unconscious man as Vin and Chris became prepared in their relative spots. Nathan gently took hold of the injured leg, one hand fixed under the knee and other one placed on top of the thigh to press and rotate the bone back into joint. The healer closed his eyes for a moment and then quietly counted to three. On three, Nathan pulled, rotated and pushed the hip back into its socket. Ezra's eyes came open and he lurched off the ground with the new flaming pain. His scream would have been strong enough to be heard counties away if he had any strength left; as it was, it came out as a pitifully weak cry.
Buck and Josiah tried to comfort the man on the ground whose body involuntarily jerked from the torment it was being put through. Vin grabbed his canteen and drenched his handkerchief. Swiping the wet material across dry lips, Ezra's body instinctively sought out the moisture. The tracker carefully placed the water soaked hanky into the heated mouth and let nature take its course as Ezra's sucked the material dry. Vin removed the rag and wished he could repeat the process when Ezra's tongue darted out looking for more moisture, but knowing better than to fill the man up with liquid. Vin replaced the cap on his canteen and set it aside. "Get ya some more real soon, pard. Just hang in there, Ez. Nathan'll make it alright," he said in his soft Texan drawl.
The jerking eased off and Ezra was completely aware of the pain strumming through his body. His face was white and tense, his eyes radiated with shock and pain, beads of glistening sweat formed on his brow and ran down his face, swept away from his eyes by a gentle hand. His hand, clutched in the blond's grasp, squeezed tighter into a death grip, in some primal need to offload the pain into them. Looking up at the men surrounding him, he knew who they were, even though his eyesight was blurred at best. The touches were ones he had come to associate with people who had helped in the past couple of years when he incurred previous injuries. The voices were like rope to a drowning man. He might not be able to see them clearly, but he knew they were there and for that he would be eternally grateful. He would not die alone as he so often thought he would during his lonely life.
After strapping the damaged leg to the good leg to keep in place, Nathan began categorizing what he needed to do next to make the man able to travel. With nothing left to do and no possible way of helping his friend, Chris handed the limp hand over to Vin and turned his rage on the only person available. The four men working on Ezra snapped their head up at the sound of a painful scream. JD, having finally moved back to the edge of the group, looking lost as what to do, said quietly and without concern, "Guess Chris is asking that David for better answers."
After the initial surprise the sound caused, the three men went back to working on the southerner. Vin glanced over at Buck and knew it would take both of them to keep Chris from outright killing the young highwayman. Nodding in silent agreement, they rose as one, while Vin gently motioned for JD to take his place. JD was as much a part of them as any and now was not the time to coddle the boy. If JD was going to be a true friend to Ezra, now was as good a time to start being one as ever. As the old saying went, 'It was time to take a stand or cut bait and run.' The sheriff moved into position and took a deep breath. If the rest could do this, so could he. Then, Nathan asked him and Josiah to help turn Ezra over, careful of the damaged ribcage and JD began having second thoughts as he witnessed the gashes marking Ezra's back. The sickly, dried, brown blood clashing glaringly against the white skin made a morbid picture. Because of the shoulder, Josiah sat flat on the ground and they rolled Ezra over, levering as much weight as possible away from his bad arm onto the preacher's lap. Era's upper most torso and head rested on the comfort of the big man.
Chris strode over to where eighteen-year-old David Earnest stood strung up by his wrists. The young outlaw had lost his stomach twice already. Once, when they bought the gambler up topside and laid him close enough for David to see clearly all the damage he and his brothers had inflicted on the poor traveler. The second time was when the black man had rotated the leg back into place. Watching the man in black rise from his kneeling position and turn those hate-filled green eyes on him, David felt his stomach lurch again.
The blond didn't say a word as he approached the young man. The moonlight created an eerie glow around him, light bouncing off the shiny handled gun and reflecting his blazing eyes. Those eyes spoke volumes. Walking up to the strung up human, Chris could smell the foul stench rising from the ground and swiftly kicked dirt over the spot without once taking his eyes off the scumbag before him. The gunslinger felt nothing for this piece of trash as he struck out his fist and hit the face staring back him, snapping the head back. Chris didn't feel any release, not even at the boy's scream and drew back for a second go at him when he felt his hand restrained. Swiftly turning to see who dared to interrupt him, Chris found himself staring into Buck's intense blue eyes and noticed Vin right at his shoulder. Chris stiffened. No one was going to stop him from his intentions, neither his long time friend nor the tracker that he felt oddly related to. Before he could snarl, Buck quietly said, "Don't plan on stopping you from what you gonna do, but let's get some answers first, okay?"
Chris stopped and then relaxed slightly and bobbed his head. Stepping back, he let Buck up to the kid. He had seen times when the fun-loving jovial man was a lot scarier than him. For some reason, watching those blue eyes go from laughing to absolute deathly was nerve-wracking even for the gunslinger. Buck stepped up to the kid and stared at the man for a long ten count. David began twitching nervously, wringing his wrists tighter against the ropes until rivulets of blood began oozing down his arms and disappeared inside his shirt. Without seemingly to move, Buck's hand suddenly held a wicked looking twelve-inch Bowie knife. Twirling the knife between his fingers, Buck stared down at the blade. It shone so brightly, the moonlight reflected off of it. Looking back up into those scared eyes, he said, "Learned a lot of uses for one of these things over the years. Can cut a man for hours, even a couple of days, before he dies." Looking back down at the blade and then back up to David's face with dead serious eyes, he asked, "How long you reckon you can last?"
A small patch of ground beneath David became moist and a dark splotch spread out over his pants. Stepping back a pace, Buck ignored the stench and let a smile escape. Vin spoke up in a quiet tone and said, "I reckon not long, but I know how to stretch out the time he does last."
David flicked his gaze towards the longhaired man standing there in a buckskin coat. David swallowed at the look the man was giving him. The eyes themselves were inviting him to a painful lesson, but the smile was worse. It almost happy, a complete opposite of what the eyes were saying or maybe relishing what the eyes were saying, David wasn't sure which.
Chris stepped back up to the boy and swung him around to face him. Time for mincing words and threats were over. "Tell us everything," he said simply. The voice was low and dangerous and David was pretty sure the man could kill with just that voice.
Gulping for air and nerves, the highway robber shook his head and gathered the last of his manhood together. "It was Bill's idea. He watched the dandy rake in all that money at the gambling table. He thought it would be easing pickings. He got me and Rodger to get ahead of him, while he and Jimmy and Randy came up from behind. Going all right, too, Bill just gave him a little beating for holding us with all his pretty talk. Then we were dividing his belongings and found his other money and Bill got real angry."
The three peacekeepers didn't have to guess what Bill had done when he got angry, they knew. "These men any kin?" Buck asked.
David nodded, "Older brothers. Bill's the oldest. He's been taking care of us since pa and ma died back when I was twelve. Fever," he added the last part softly.
Chris didn't care about any sob story. One his men and good friends had been nearly killed. Taking a look back to where Nathan was busy cleaning of the worst in the slashes, Chris figured Nathan had given Ezra some laudanum to knock him out. Turning back to his target he asked, "Where are they?"
David shook his head. "Don't know. Bill said we should split up for a couple of weeks. Randy and Rodger went one way and Bill and Jimmy went off another. I just wanted to get to the closest town and drink away what we'd done," David finished quietly, the honesty showing through.
Chris clenched and unclenched his fists. The need to drive this young man's nose right into his skull was rushing through his system with urgency. He glanced over to Buck and Vin and could see the same thoughts shining from their eyes. He wouldn't let them do it; he wouldn't let them become murderers. That's how they would later view themselves, after the hate died and they got to reflecting on it, if he allowed them to kill this man, no matter how deserving it was. That was what separated men like them from men like Bill Earnest and his brothers. He also realized the only way to keep Buck and Vin and, for that matter, the others from going on a rampage was to stay in control of the situation. Only for the sake of his friends would he retain control on his killing urges.
"Tie him to his horse," Chris said quietly before moving back to where Ezra lay motionless. He felt his stomach clenched for a moment in dread as the thought that perhaps the man was no longer with them. One look from Josiah, though, and his stomach unclenched. Ezra was still fighting to stay with them. Vin dragged David back his horse and was sorely tempted to just let the man walk back to town, but common sense told him that would slow them down and Ezra couldn't spare the minutes.
Nathan finished sewing up the longest gash; he would reopen them once they got back to town and reclean them; for now it would have to do. With the help of the others, they turned Ezra back onto his back. The healer managed to dribble a few more drops of laudanum down the gambler's throat. He could only hope it would be enough to keep the man unconscious during the trip back to town. The man was going to suffer enough pain and any Nathan would spare him would be downright kind.
With all six men moving him, Ezra was lifted off the ground and placed in the wagon. Nathan crawled up to the head of the buckboard and placed the limp head on his crossed lap. There was nothing more he could do for his friend until they got back to town. The healer felt the wagon give a sway as JD crawled up into the drivers seat and started the wagon in motion. Nathan looked around and noticed a friend surrounded it on each side. The need to ride close and keep an eye on Ezra was in all of them.
The ride back was a long one. It was well past midnight when the wagon rolled into Four Corners. Shortly after they had started out, Ezra seemed to have felt every bump in the road. The whimpering quickly taxed JD's already short nerves, but kept it to himself. Buck noticed the kid cringing every time Ezra moaned and held up the process while he offered the sheriff a trade. During the exchange, Nathan, with Vin's help, poured more laudanum down the southerner. In no time the man's torment was abated and the journey continued uninterrupted.
Pulling up in front of the clinic, the men dismounted and each lifted up a piece of the blanket Ezra was lying on and carried him upstairs. Once inside, they eased Ezra down onto the cot. Josiah and Buck gently lifted the sick man off the cot long enough for Chris to remove the blanket and then settled him back on the cot.
Vin helped the healer gather the necessary supplies. It was going to be a long night, added to an already long day. Between the two men, they got the tea to simmering and the herbs ground up. Josiah used his knife and ripped the inside and outside seams of Ezra's torn and bloodstained cotton undergarment and then gently, Chris, Buck and he removed the garment. The red stain did not bode well for the gambler. Covering Ezra up with a sheet, the men stood gathered around wishing they could do more for their injured friend.
Going back to where Ezra lay, Nathan once more began trying to figure out where to start. Knowing there wasn't much he could do for the set bones or the bruising, he decided the slashes would be best taken care of first. The healer motioned for the three men to help turn Ezra onto his stomach. Sliding onto the bed, Josiah once again took his place underneath the gambler. It was going to painful for the southerner for a very long time.
Reopening the stitches, Nathan scrubbed the dirt and pebbles out of each lash mark with lye soap. It wasn't the most pleasant of soaps, with its rough texture and strange odor, but it did the job. Rinsing out the sites, Nathan carefully closed up the worst wounds, opting to leave the others open and heal on their own. Nathan carefully spread a thick layer of the mixture all over the back to help in the healing and reduce the scarring. Laying a muslin cloth over the medicine, he wrapped the torso gently but tightly, doing his best not to shift any of the broken ribs. The men eased Ezra onto his back and finally strapped the shoulder down, placing a poultice under the strips of sheets.
The blond slowly backed away from the cot. Too many people around the small bed made Nathan's work more difficult. Turning, he once again decided his resources would best be put to use in helping JD secure the outlaw and see what other answers he could get from the man. Vin, not feeling useful anymore, followed suit.
Upon turning Ezra onto his back the healer did a cursory glance and swore. Pulling back the sheet that they had just covered the man up with, Nathan's agitation grew. A large circular spot on the bottom sheet was bright red. Josiah and Buck lifted Ezra upper body partially while Nathan removed the blood-soaked sheet from the top. Once the sheet had been half removed and another one started, the men moved to the end of the bed and repeated the process. After the fresh sheet was in place, Josiah retrieved a folded towel and placed it under Ezra's lower back. No one needed an explanation; they all knew it meant their gambler was bleeding internally. Nathan began probing Ezra's abdomen and found it was beginning to swell on the right side. The touch and subsequent pain was enough to elicit a small moan from the patient. "Okay, Ez. That's all I'm going to right now," Nathan said softly patting the man's good arm.
The men moved away from the sick bed and Buck asked worriedly, "What do we do now, Nathan?"
"We wait. We pour as much fluids into him as possible. Hopefully, the bleeding will stop on its own. Until then we keep on eye out for fever and hope he doesn't start getting an infection."
Buck looked at the healer and smiled sadly. "This is Ez, Nate. That isn't going to happen."
"We can only pray, boys," Josiah added.
Chris stepped into the jailhouse and nodded once to the sheriff and then said, "Go on to bed, JD. I'll look after our young prisoner."
The young sheriff responded with a questioning look and a quiet thanks. He grabbed his hat and started out the door. Opening the door, he nearly ran into Vin. Sidestepping the tracker, JD threw a worried glance over his shoulder towards the blond leader and looked back to Vin. The Texan nodded once in understanding a sent a silent promise that everything would be all right. JD headed across the street as Vin closed the door and leaned against the wall. Crossing his arms, he would wait the blond out. Only interfering if absolutely necessary.
Chris ignored the tracker and grabbed the keys to the cell door. Stepping inside, he glared at the prisoner. David had not even thought about trying to escape, just trying to position himself as far from the man as he could in the small cell. David stared at the man dressed in black, looking like the reaper himself, and suddenly began to think he wasn't going to make it long enough to make it before the courts.
Chris took three steps, grabbed the kid by the lapels of his jacket and threw him against wall. "Where's your brothers?" he demanded.
"Don't know," David said as he struggled for air.
Chris shoved the boy a little harder, tightening his grip and shoving his knuckles into the exposed adam's apple. "Where?" he hissed.
"Think Roger and Randy might have headed for Ridge City. Don't know about Bill and Jimmy," David finally confessed.
Chris pressed the vulnerable throat a little tighter. "Getting tired of having to ask you twice for everything," he said, his jaw muscles tightening as he clenched them together. His green eyes squinting in hate.
David squeaked, "Honest."
Chris loosened his grip, but didn't let go. Something bothered him about the information. Finally remembering something David had said earlier, Chris asked harshly, "You're suppose to meet back up. When? Where?" The grip tightening back up at the young man's throat.
"Two weeks … River's Bend," the young boy gave up. "Please, Mister, don't kill them. They're the only family I got," David begged as Larabee let the man go.
Chris seemed to see the kid in new light. He was just a young pup. He probably thought of the oldest brother more as a parent than a brother. On some level Chris understood the kid's point of not wanting to lose his family, but justice would be served. The leader knew the kid didn't want to be responsible for sending the law after his brothers and possibly their deaths.
Chris looked the kid in the eye and said, "I'll give them that choice."
David was smart enough to understand that was the best this peacemaker could do and took the promise as it was.
Chris turned to see Vin still standing there. One nod was all that was necessary. Tomorrow, he and a few of the boys would be going to Ridge City.
The next morning bought the sunshine and a bright blue day. For the citizens of Four Corners it was going to a beautiful day. None of the six men gathered in the clinic noticed the weather or the beauty the day was going to bring forth. Ezra has made it through the night and that was the best news that they were going to have this morning.
Chris had already told them that he, Vin and Buck were going to Ridge City. Josiah would stay and help Nathan and JD with their respective duties. No argument ensued. They all had a job to do and it would be performed.
Chris and the two men rode hard that day and made Ridge City before dark. The trip was made mostly in silence. As was customary, Chris stopped at the sheriff's office, while Buck and Vin took the horses on down to the livery. Checking in, while not mandatory, was courteous. The blond stepped inside the jail and met the deputy. Chris like liked Ryans. He was a man in his thirties, tall and reed-thin, but something in his eyes warned people there was more to him than what they saw and he did his job well. It didn't take Chris long to tell the deputy who he sought and why. The deputy stepped out onto the boardwalk and stopped a kid running down the street. The boy was quickly instructed to run to the sheriff's house and fetch him back to the jail quickly.
Buck and Vin rode on to the livery. Entering the dimly lit building and dismounting, they began looking for the horses David had described as his brother's. They were looking for a dun and a black with one white stocking on the right foreleg. He had told them that the oldest brother, Bill, had taken Ezra's horse for himself. Giving the stable boy a couple of pennies, they were shown to the stalls where the steeds had been stabled. The stable boy didn't know where the men went, only that the two men had only been back once to check on their horses. Buck and Vin looked at each other. Both knew that it was just plain stupid on the part of the riders. It was bad business not to check on your horse at least a couple times a day, especially in a new town. It was too easy for said horses to accidentally disappear. Buck gave the boy a nickel and asked him to find some extra oats for the three peacekeepers' horses. After riding so hard to make the trip in one day, the horses deserved a little treat.
Chris only had to wait about five minutes for the sheriff, a man about the same age as himself. The sheriff had plainly been eating his supper when he had been called. Chris greeted him and told him he was looking for two men that hurt one of his own. Sheriff Hayes turned to the deputy and asked, "You seen these two men?"
The deputy replied, "Yeah. Saw him over at the Lucky Spoon Hotel last night."
"Show Mr. Larabee over there and I'll stay here until you return," the sheriff ordered.
Chris knew exactly where the Luck Spoon Hotel was, but allowed the deputy to do his instructed job and followed the man out the door. Buck and Vin stepped up onto the porch as Chris closed the door. Ryans gave the two men a quick hello with the dip of his head and headed for the hotel.
The four men entered the hotel and immediately drew the attention of the sparse patrons sitting in the lobby. The clerk looked up and almost groaned. Chris Larabee and his posse were well known in these parts and having them in town, specifically in his hotel, did not bode well. The deputy walked up to the counter while the three lawmen hung back.
"Lookin' for two men in their middle twenties. Would have come in last night," the deputy explained briefly.
"Yeah, they checked in last night. Kept to themselves today. Figure they'll be going out soon though. Nightlife picks up after supper," he said, giving his brows a wiggle and the eyes took on a little sparkle, enough for the men to get the insinuation.
Before Chris could turn to leave, the hotel owner added, "Ain't had no trouble with them," He looked at the blond when he spoke the last of these words.
Vin couldn't help but duck his head to hide his grin. Apparently, their reputation preceded them. The tracker had studied the old man ever since walking into the old building. He figured the man was in his late sixties and was probably the original owner of the hotel. Vin would bet his last cent that the old man knew everyone and everything that went on in these parts and could tell stories from as far back as when he was a kid.
Chris led the other three men up the stairs quietly. Professional courtesy was over. These men were his and he was going to take care of it. The four men stalked down the hall and stopped in front of the appointed room. Buck and Vin gathered around the door and waited for a sign from Chris. The deputy had moved back a space. He was there only if he was needed and he seriously doubted that would be the case. Being given the slightest nod from their leader, the three men barged into the room like dogs from dominion.
Both outlaws had been in the process of getting dressed to go out on the town and jumped a foot at the crashing sound of the door falling in. They fumbled to reach for their guns, but weren't fast enough before Chris Larabee, dressed in black with his holster hanging empty from his hip, was standing next to them with his gun cocked in their faces. "Evening, boys," he said with a wicked smile gracing his face. The two brothers raised their hands in quiet surrender.
Chris let them finish getting dressed. He didn't want to give the good ladies of the town the shock of their lives by dragging the men across to the jail in their union suits. With a gun to their backs and one on each side, the twenty-five-year-old men followed the deputy to the jail.
Only after feeling safe behind bars did they object to their treatment. "Can't lock up folks without no good reason," Rodger said, stepping away from the bars when Chris turned his attention to him.
"I got a reason. His name is Ezra Standish," Chris said lowly.
"We never met an Ezra Standish. What about him?" Randy said bravely from the far corner of the cell.
"He's the man you beat and then horse-whipped yesterday," Buck said heatedly, his head cocked at an angle as he neared the bars of the cell. "The one you stripped and then rolled over an embankment," the angry ladies' man said, stopping at the bars. "The one you left to die."
The two men gulped. It should have been days before anyone noticed that prissy fellow was missing, if anyone cared enough to file the report. Then, like a flash they knew how these men came to find that gambler so quickly…David. "What's that dandy to you, anyway?" Randy questioned with a scowl.
"He's our friend," Vin said quietly.
Chris turned back to the sheriff. "Gonna go get us a room. We'll be back bright and early for them," he said and then walked out, followed by Vin. Buck stopped at the door and then ambled back to the cell. He stood there for a second before he jumped at the bars and yelled, "Boo." Both men jumped and for the first time, Buck cracked a smile. It wasn't a very nice one either.
It had been a long and drawn out day in the clinic. Ezra had roused from his sleep right after the others' departure, mostly due to the pain that seemed to live a life of its own. He was not coherent enough to know what was happening around him, just that he felt like he was being stampeded upon. The low moans alerted Josiah first and he leaned forward in his chair. Sleep had not been had since the two nights before and the preacher was showing the signs, but didn't let it stop him from being there for his younger friend.
Ezra had started a low-grade fever during the early hours of the morning, so Josiah laid a wet cloth on the sweaty forehead and sympathized, "Know you're hurting, Ez. Just going to have to ride with it for a few minutes. Nathan's bringing some more tea and then it'll get better."
His only answer was another soft moan. Josiah eased the single sheet back from the body and between him and Nathan, replaced the blood soaked towel. Nathan looked into the calm gray yes with a worried feeling. "It isn't getting better, Josiah. I'd hoped the bleeding would have stopped or slowed down by now."
Josiah reached out a comforting hand and laid it on his friend's arm. "It'll be fine, Nathan."
"Hope so. All we can do is keep trying to flush his kidneys out with fluids and try not to let him get dehydrated," Nathan whispered as he turned back to the stove and dropped the rag into boiling water to be cleaned and reused for later. Both men knew that a high fever could literally cook the insides of a man, but dehydration could do just as much harm. Pouring another cup of tea, the healer handed it to Josiah. The big man placed a clean towel over Ezra's chest for a bib and using a spoon, fed the tea to the unconscious man, drop by drop.
After an hour, Josiah finally got the last drop down the parched throat. While Josiah fed Ezra, Nathan kept Ezra bathed down with wet rags. He had paid a local boy a dime to make sure they always had a pail of cold water throughout the day.
Both men knew the routine by now and understood rationally that all they could do was sit and wait, but it never seemed enough. They each were privately thankful that the weather was holding at a comfortable temperature. The season was right for them to start having odd weather. Something about the late spring made the temperatures bounce around. One day it would be mild and beautiful, and that night a storm could blow through and lower the temperature. The next day the sun could be out and the heat would rise to unbelievable highs.
Josiah, looking up at his friend's tired visage, he softly suggested, "Go to bed, Nathan. I'll stay here and keep an eye on him. You need the rest."
Nathan stared back at his friend and then barked out a laugh. "Don't talk. You don't look like you're ready for no spring dance yourself."
"I'll be all right for a couple of hours while you catch up on some rest. After you wake, then I'll go get some sleep. No use both of us sitting here," Josiah wisely stated. Nathan finally consented and headed for his small bedroom.
Josiah looked down on the man in the bed and sighed heavily. He had seen men do horrific things to each other in the name of hate and greed, but could never grasp the why. He began talking about the places he had been and the things he had seen. "Bet you've seen a lot in your lifetime, too. Huh, Ez?' he asked quietly. "I bet it hasn't all been grand and great, either," he hazarded a guess. He always had the feeling there had been more to the young man's life than money and fine articles.
While Josiah tended to Ezra, JD took over the patrolling of the town. He would have to wait to patrol the outlying areas until Josiah could catch a break and get some sleep. The older peacekeeper could watch over the town while he rode out. By the time JD finished doing the duties at the jail and checking on their three guests, most of the town had heard about the crime that had befallen one of their peacekeepers. While a very few thought maybe the gambler had somehow bought it on himself, most of the people were truly worried.
The sheriff fielded questions concerning the state of Ezra's health, to questions and concerns that there was now a group of marauders out there. Some had even heard rumors that this gang had intentions of swooping into Four Corners and ravaging it dry and with one peacekeeper down and three others, the ones handiest with their guns, were out of town. The townspeople were becoming unsettled.
It took the better part of the morning and Mary's help to convince the town that Ezra's beating had not been some kind of warning to the citizens. It had been a plain act of highway savagery, and Chris and the others had gone out to catch them. Hearing that the famed gunslinger knew where the rest of the band was and that the others were out, that very moment, gathering them up put the people's mind at ease and things calmed back down.
JD managed to slip over to the saloon and order lunch for Josiah and Nathan. Inez was already one step ahead of the young sheriff and bought out a tray already fixed. JD tipped his hat and thanked her for her kind generosity and headed to the clinic with the tray. Shifting the lunch tray to one hand, JD opened the door and then kick it closed with the heel of his boot. Sitting down the tray, he walked over to the bed and handed Josiah his plate. Looking down, the guilt of how he first reacted came sweeping back down on him.
Josiah noticed a change in the young man and asked, "JD, you all right?"
Shifting uncomfortably at the thought of Josiah knowing what was on his mind, he tried to change topics. "Don't look good, does he?"
Josiah took the change of topics and looked back down at Ezra. Under his wrapped upper torso there was one massive black bruise mixed with red splotches that stood out as horse hoofs. The man's face had never really regained any color and was now covered in light perspiration. The normally perfectly styled hair was sopped and plastered down to his scalp. Josiah had to agree with JD's observation.
"He's had better days," Josiah said quietly. Looking back up at the black-haired man, he inquired, "So, any problems?" He had already wolfed down half his food, not realizing just how hungry he was.
"Some of the folks were under the impression we were fixing to be under attack," JD answered with a roll of his eyes. "Might have a houseful when you go back to the church for confirmation that we're not," he added.
Josiah noticed the slight dip in JD's voice and knew it wasn't easy for the young sheriff. For the most part, the folks accepted JD as sheriff and respected him as such, but unfortunately, when things went awry, the citizens of Four Corners sought out the other members, to confirm that the town was safe, and the sheriff knew what he was doing and had backup if he needed. The preacher admired JD. He knew it must irritate the man something awful to have his word questioned because of his age. More times than most, they turned to Chris for answers or problems, yet the sheriff handled it well and kept his cool.
"I'll sneak in the back door. Want some sleep before I face them." Giving the black-haired man a wicked gleam, he said, "Hate to have to preach them a sermon." JD smiled back.
Nodding back to Ezra, he offered, "I'll stay with him until Nathan wakes if you want to head on over now."
Josiah considered the offer only a minute before nodding is head. "Sure appreciate the offer," he said as he rose up, the bones in his knees popping as he stood. JD held back the grin and smart remark that threatened to pop up. Josiah patted Ezra's good shoulder once and whispered, "Be back in a bit. You just keep hanging in there." Setting down his empty plate, he grabbed his hat and headed out the door as JD sat down, picked up a rag and began swiping down the pale man. "So, Ez, how much did you win in River's Bend?" JD began conversationally.
Chris, Buck and Vin were up and ready to go at the first hint of light. The sun was still a good hour away from rising, but the dawning of light was enough to see clearly the well-trodden path back to Four Corners. Upon hearing the three men walking into the jail, the arrested were not thrilled at being awaken so early in the morning.
"What the blazes we gotta get up so early for?" Randy whined.
"Because, I said so" Buck answered, unlocking the cell and motioning for the two men to exit and then be handcuffed.
"We ain't even had no breakfast yet," Rodger added as Vin locked the shackles into place.
"Shut up or I'll cuff your hands behind your back instead," Vin said. "Besides going without one meal isn't gonna do you no harm," he added.
Chris nodded once to Sheriff Hayes. "Thanks," he said quietly before motioning for Buck and Vin to lead their prisoner outside.
"Anytime," Sheriff Hayes answered. In reality, he liked the hard-nosed, honest gunslinger.
The men traveled back to Four Corners much like they had going: quick pace, few stops and quiet. Randy, they had quickly learned, was the one who liked to whine. After fifteen minutes of it, Vin offered to gag him for the rest of the trip. Surprisingly enough, the man quit his whining and rode in silence for the rest of the trip.
Nearing the town, Buck and Vin flanked Chris and let out their lead rope so the other two horses could lag behind a bit. Neither worried about the men trying anything. One warning from the blond leader and they had all but repeated their youngest brother's earlier action. Riding with soaked britches was very uncomfortable.
"You reckon he's still with us?" Vin questioned quietly. Vin had grown to like the gambler. Ezra had a quick wit, an easy style and not too many men were secure enough to don a purple dress and pretend to be a singer. The tracker let a smile escape at that memory. Ezra was game for anything and contrary to Nathan's popular belief, the man was not always out for the all mighty dollar, just ninety-nine percent of the time. Yep, Vin had taken a real liking to the cardsharp.
"I hope so," Chris answered somberly.
The first time the blond had run across the gambler, he was holding a room full of angry men at arm's-length with a simple two-shooter. Chris knew then the man had to have nerves of steel to even attempt such a bold stunt. The man had proved again-and-again just how much gumption he had. Chris wouldn't admit it out loud, but the gamester was always good for a laugh. Even after being shot, the man had been more worried about the money than his wound.
"Ez, is going to be just fine and somehow, he's going to come out ahead in all this," Buck put in. Like Vin, the first memory that flashed into his mind was the gambler dressed up in that gaudy purple dress and hooking those fellows on his line. Man was a good one, even though he had a mother like Maude. Buck shook his head. Well, not everyone could have a saint for a mother like he did.
The men rode into town in silence. JD, having been relieved by Nathan earlier in the evening, came out to assist with the criminals. Buck gave one look at the kid and breathed a sigh of relief; Ezra was still hanging in there. After bedding the horses down, the three men made their way over to the clinic. Walking in with reverence for the ill, Chris made his way over to the far side of the bed, Josiah relinquishing his chair to the tired blond. Buck and Vin took up positions on the near side. Chris lifted the limp hand and pushed the sweaty hair off the gaunt looking face. Looking up, he simply said, "Nathan?"
Nathan held the steel green eyes and said, "Nearly lost him last night." He then began recapping what had taken place the night before while the men were gone.
As the night slipped into the eleventh hour, the gambler's fever began rising and his throat had started to constrict, making him choke on any liquid put into him. The healer had decided on taking the man down to the bathhouse. Having the ample supply of water and not having to tote the necessary items up the stairs helped the healer make that choice. He had debated on whether it was all right to get the fresh stitches wet, but after Ezra's fever increased, he determined there was no choice. Josiah helped wrap him in a blanket and carried him down to the bathhouse. They had soaked the man in the tub for a good two hours. Josiah had silently sworn he had seen steam come off the water; Ezra was so hot hitting that cold water. Bucket after bucket of cold water was poured over the man, completely sopping the floors and the men's boots and pant legs. The bath had eventually lowered the fever, but it was still too high in Nathan's mind.
Chris watched the healer, Nathan wasn't telling them everything. "Nathan, what's causing the fever?" he prodded.
"He's still bleeding inside," Nathan answered; he had lowered his head.
"Can't you operate and stop it?" Buck questioned the healer.
The healer turned angry, hurt eyes upon the dark-haired man. "Buck, dang it, I don't know enough to operate. I could kill him," Nathan snapped out bitterly. Suddenly, Chris understood Nathan's disposition. The man was scared.
"What about taking him to Eagle Bend?" Vin asked. Looking upon his friend, he couldn't imagine just quitting.
"Doc there is getting old. Not sure he'd be able to perform such an operation," Nathan answered sadly, he had already thought of all their options and there wasn't any.
"What about getting him to Denver?" Chris asked.
"Never make the trip," Nathan replied matter-of-factly.
Chris nodded and then looked up. "So, either he dies because he can't make the trip to Denver, the doc in Eagle Bend is too old, or you're too proud to try," Chris stated.
"Chris!" Josiah, Buck and Vin exclaimed as one.
Nathan looked up like he had been slapped. "I am not proud!" he yelled.
"Sure you are. You've been successful each time one of us has gotten hurt and now you're afraid to try because you might fail. You'd rather him die like he is and that way you won't have any part in it," Chris said logically. In truth, he was trying to get the healer to see he was Ezra's only chance at living.
Nathan could only stare at the gunslinger. He couldn't imagine Chris really thought he would sit back and do nothing to help a friend all in the name of pride.
Chris watched the words sink in and then stood up. "Nathan, there's not a man in this room, including Ezra, who doesn't trust you completely. Even if you aren't sure how to do it, you're still his best chance and I trust you. He'd trust you," Chris said firmly, nodding towards Ezra.
Suddenly Nathan saw the truth in it all. Even if Ezra were to die; at least he would never be able to say he hadn't tried everything within his power to prevent it. Slowly, the healer began nodding his head in agreement. He would operate. He would try to save his friend. "Will need help," he said softly.
End Part 5
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