by Sassysouix and Dorkjunkie
Disclaimer: This story is a piece of fanfiction containing characters which are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I do not make any claims to these characters.
Ezra balanced the wooden chair on its back legs, deftly shuffling the deck of cards with agile fingers. The saloon, indeed the entire town of Four Corners seemed unusually quiet as if holding its breath in anticipation of its remaining peacekeepers return.
Chris, Buck and Josiah had escorted the Trenton Twins to Cedar Ridge for their upcoming murder trial. The two wanted men were foolish enough to try robbing the bank in Four Corners as if completely oblivious or maybe just unconcerned about the town's seven infamous peacekeepers. If there was one thing Chris Larabee couldn't abide it was obviously-stupid criminals.
A cool breeze, the only indication winter was just around the corner, touched the town raising small dust clouds which swirled in the streets settling dirt over everything.
"Hey Ez, ya make a bundle offa them fellas last night?" Vin Tanner stepped through the saloon's swinging doors, adjusting his battered slouch hat.
"Indeed, Mr. Tanner, I acquired a fair amount of their currency." Ezra grinned. "At least it made for an interesting evening. The caliber of poker players has dwindled recently."
"Maybe I'll donate some of my hard earned pay to ya when I get back from patrol." The sharpshooter offered. "Won't be much, since you're gonna have ta hit the hay early tonight. You've got first patrol in the morning."
"Please don't remind me." Ezra groaned. "The reasoning behind rising with the sun still eludes me."
"You're a smart fella. I'm pretty sure you'll figure it out one a these days." Vin laughed, tossing the gambler a wave. "See ya in a few hours."
Tanner was tightening the saddle cinch on his black bay gelding when the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood on end. He moved casually to put the horse between himself and the doors.
"Don't even think about reachin' for that mare's leg Tanner or I'll drop ya where ya stand." Ezra's three poker companions from the previous evening stepped into the stall door, their guns drawn. "You're worth five hundred dollars ta us dead or alive and I'd just as leave shoot ya as look at ya."
"I'd a never figured you three for bounty hunters." Vin remarked as he calmly rested his hands on the saddle but didn't move from his position.
"Could say the same bout you." The obvious leader of the three stated. "Step on around here, nice and easy like." When Vin hesitated, the man cocked the hammer back on his gun. "Ya know ya gotta choice here. We can do this the easy way and just ride outta here with you or you could put up a fight and innocent folk could get hurt. The way I figure it, the first sound of gunplay and your friends are gonna come runnin' which means we'll have to kill them... in self defense of course."
Seeing no safe way out of the situation, Vin slowly stepped from the stall, never doubting for a moment these men would kill anyone who got in their way.
"Jim, bring that rope over here and tie his hands. Bob you get the horses ready and bring them around back."
As the two men moved to follow orders, another voice drifted lazily in the stillness. "I would suggest you gentlemen give this proposition considerable more thought."
The men spun to face Ezra who, Remington in hand, had stepped through the stable door and into the shadows. As one they reached for the guns they'd just holstered. "I might suggest you also keep your hands in sight if you wish to continue breathing."
"Looks like we have ourselves a standoff." The leader, Pete, if Ezra remembered correctly, wrapped an arm around Tanner's throat using the lanky Texan for cover, his gun pressed to Vin's temple. "Unless you wanna see your friend's brains splattered all over hell, toss that gun over here."
"Don't do it Ez."
"Shut up Tanner!" Pete ordered tightening his hold. "Done told ya I don't care iffen I take ya back to Texas draped over a saddle or sitting in one. Question here is, how much your friend over there wants to live cos iffen he don't do as he's told you're both dead men."
Taking advantage of the time alone, Ezra had made his way to the stables with several cubes of sugar for Chaucer, pilfered from the bowl on boarding house table, arriving in time to hear the threats against Tanner. Knowing there was no time to seek assistance, the gambler took on the job of preventing his friend's deadly return to Texas.
The tracker's eyes followed Ezra as the con man stepped further into the shadows seeking a more advantageous position. Even the gambler would admit, three to one wasn't the best odds in this situation. Vin, his eyes on Ezra, awaiting his play, closed his hand around his own gun. Pete hadn't had a chance to take the weapon before Ezra's arrival. His thumb rested on the hammer waiting.
"Your grammar, sir, is atrocious." As Ezra spoke again, Jim drew and fired. Pete jumped, not realizing the gambler had silently worked his way so close to where he held Tanner as a human shield.
Jim's bullet went wide. Ezra's didn't.
Vin didn't bother pulling the mare's leg, instead he simply twisted the weapon in its holster and fired. Pete screamed, automatically shoving the tracker away from him as the bullet tore through his leg. Bob's bullet caught Tanner just below the collar bone, spinning the ex-bounty hunter and slamming him against the boards of the stall. Sending a bullet ripping into Bob's chest killing him instantly, Ezra grabbed Vin's collar pulling him into the shadows as Pete, roaring with rage and pain emptied his gun in their direction.
Ezra stumbled, returning fire and dragging Vin behind several stacked bales of hay.
"You're... bleedin'... Ez," Vin groaned as the gambler pressed his handkerchief against the tracker's shoulder wound.
"So are you." Ezra stated, glancing quickly over the bales, his eyes searching for Pete. Vin's head rested against Ezra's chest as the con man pressed the small cloth harder, trying desperately to stem the flow of blood. "I assure you Mr. Tanner, it is a minor inconvenience."
"You in the stable. This is Sheriff Dunne. Toss your guns-"
"JD! Vin needs Nathan! There's three men. Two are dead!" Ezra called out. "I lost track of the third one."
"Ez..." The tracker's voice sounded weak and Standish shook him slightly, a desperate tone in his voice.
"Stay with me Vin... Just hang on! Save your strength for arguing with Nathan. You know how our resident healer loves to keep ya there when you're unfortunate enough to end up in his clinic... Vin?" The sharpshooter's blue eyes fluttered closed, his head dropping forward. "V-Vin!"
"Let me see Ezra!" The gambler looked up confused as Nathan dropped to his knees beside them, pushing aside the bloody cloth, the gambler still held to Tanner's shoulder. Leaning Vin forward, the healer swore when he couldn't find an exit wound.
"How bad is it Nathan?" JD asked, worry for his long haired friend in his dark eyes.
"The bullet's still in him I won't know anything till I can get a better look at him."
Standish spoke to the young sheriff without taking his gaze off Tanner. "JD... what about Pete? Did you find him?"
"He's dead." Dunne assured him. "Ain't them the same guys ya was playin' poker with last night?"
"Damn Ezra! I done told ya your gamblin' was gonna get someone killed someday." Nathan admonished his voice full of anger, before the con man could respond. "I just hope it ain't today. JD help me get Vin up to the clinic."
Ezra waited until they were out of the stables before struggling to his feet, one hand pressed to his side, the other gripping a post as the stables spun wildly out of control. When the world once again straightened, revolving normally on its axis, he carefully made his way toward the clinic nodding as he passed the undertaker who would be working overtime this day.
Nathan had forced a small dose of laudanum down Vin's throat and was in the process of efficiently removing the bullet, when Ezra entered the clinic, leaning against the door.
"You okay Ezra... ya look kinda pale." JD glanced up from where he held Tanner's uninjured shoulder in case he started to struggle.
"Probably hung over." Nathan sniped.
"I'm fine, Mr. Dunne. Thank you for asking, but our concern should be with Mr. Tanner at the moment."
Vin groaned but didn't regain consciousness as Nathan extracted the offensive metal, dropping the bullet onto a tray with a loud clanging finality.
"He gonna be okay now Nathan?" JD asked watching the dark healer clean the wound and begin sewing it closed.
"If he don't take a fever and gets plenty of rest." Nathan nodded, concentrating on the job in front of him.
Realizing Vin was in the best possible hands, and there was nothing more he could do to help, JD moved for the door. "Guess I better head out. Somebody's gotta take Vin's patrol."
"Let Ezra do it!" There was a bitterness in Nathan's voice which escaped neither JD or the gambler but neither had time to react before Nathan continued. "It's your place to protect the town, JD. This is most likely his fault so it's only right he take Vin's patrol. It's what he gets paid to do, not sit on his sorry ass in the saloon takin' folk's money and causin' more trouble. 'Sides it'll probably be safer. Give Chris time to calm down after he hears what happened."
JD saw the southerner's shoulders slump but his voice was soft as Ezra nodded once, speaking up before the sheriff could protest. "Nathan is correct Mr. Dunne. You have a town to protect. I'll take Mr. Tanner's patrol." With that said, the gambler slipped out the door and neither of the men in the clinic saw him stumble down the stairs.
Ezra's walk to his room had never seemed so long, his legs shaking uncontrollably as he closed and locked the door. Setting the two bottles of whiskey, Inez had put on his tab, next to the wash basin, he filled the bowl with water from the pitcher. Ezra eased himself onto the bed, gingerly removing his upper clothing.
Gently washing the wounds where Pete's bullet had entered and exited his side, he tossed the cloth into the red water. Pulling the cork from one of the bottles with his teeth, he took a long swallow, steeling himself for the pain he knew was forthcoming. He'd spent several minutes tearing the clean sheets the laundry woman had delivered that morning into strips, and placing a clean shirt and jacket on the bed beside him. Upending the bottle, he saturated one of the pieces of cloth. Standish took another large pull from the bottle and gritting his teeth pressed the whiskey soaked cloth to his side, biting back the agonizing scream that rose in his throat.
Packing the extra whiskey and bandages in his saddle bags, Ezra eased into the clean clothes, covering the white cloth that encircled his waist and leaving by the back stairs, made his way to the stables as quickly as possible wanting to be on his way before encountering JD or Nathan again.
At the sound of approaching riders, JD paused on the clinic's balcony, searching the dark streets hoping to see Ezra astride Chaucer. The gambler should have returned hours ago. Knowing the healer wouldn't leave Vin's side until his patient woke up, the young sheriff had asked Inez to prepare a supper tray for Nathan.
"Buck!" Setting the tray on the bench, JD rushed down the stairs to meet his three teammates. "We didn't expect you guys back till tomorrow."
"Everything okay JD?" Chris hadn't failed to notice JD had been about to enter the clinic.
"We had a little trouble this afternoon... Vin... got hurt..."
"I'll take the horses to the stable." Josiah volunteered, taking the reins as both Chris and Buck dismounted and ran for the stairs. "JD... Vin..."
"Nathan thinks he's gonna be fine." The boy nodded, answering the unasked question, before hurrying after his friends.
Dozing in the chair, Nathan's eyes flew open as Chris burst into the clinic, Buck close on his heels. Seeing the white bandage that encircled the sleeping patient's shoulder and pale complexion, the blond man stepped to the bed, laying a palm gently against his friend's forehead, sighing with relief at finding no sign of fever.
"He's gonna be fine Chris." The healer assured him. "He was runnin' a little fever earlier but that's ta be expected."
Larabee slapped his hat against his leg in disgust. "Can't leave y'all alone for five minutes! What the hell happened!"
"Don't rightly know, but seems Vin walked in on some a Ezra's unhappy marks." Nathan shrugged, "Got into a shooting match and Vin caught one in the shoulder. He was lucky, a bit higher and it woulda broke his collarbone."
"Where the hell's Ezra?" Chris demanded, his flashing hazel eyes, turning green with anger, a dead give away he was out for blood and from all indications it was going to be southern blood.
"Don't think he's back from patrol yet," JD shuffled his feet, his eyes on the floor. "I better go make my rounds."
Buck watched his young friend slip out the door brushing past Josiah, with his head down. Something was wrong and it wasn't just worry for Tanner that had squelched the young man's normal enthusiasm.
Wilmington was waiting at the saloon doors when JD finished his rounds. Taking the sheriff's arm he pulled him to the bar, ordering two beers and shoving one in the sheriff's hand before leading him to the table where Chris and Josiah waited.
"What happened today JD?" Chris asked.
"Like Nathan said, we don't really know." The younger man shrugged. "Guess we won't till Ez gets back or Vin wakes up... I was in the jail when I heard the shootin'... By the time me and Nathan got there it was all over. Vin was unconscious and Ezra was holdin' on to him tryin' to stop the bleedin'."
Buck, an expert where JD was concerned, sensed more. "But you don't think it happened the same way Nathan does?" He prompted.
JD shifted in his chair, searching for a way to express his thoughts without the older men dismissing them outright or making the healer look bad in their eyes. In situations involving two of the teammates, Nathan always seemed to see the worst in Ezra, assuming any problem had to be his fault.
"Just tell us what you think son." Josiah quietly urged. "As you and Nathan both said, there's no way of knowing because you weren't there but it's fairly obvious you two don't agree."
"I don't exactly disagree with Nathan," he hedged. "I... it just don't feel right... I mean there weren't any trouble during the game and I saw them fellas when they left. They was just talkin' amongst their selves and sure didn't seem mad or anything... It just don't... I don't know..." he mumbled. "feel right." Frustrated, the boy slumped in his chair, absently tracing a design on his beer mug. Vin always told the young man to trust his feelings but how could he trust something so confusing.
"Mr. Larabee?" A ranch hand who had just entered the saloon stepped up to the table. "That fella that runs the clinic, stopped me and asked me to let ya know your friend is wakin' up."
Their beers forgotten, the four men shoved away from the table, pushing through the crowd and out into the quiet street.
Nathan held a cup of herbal tea to Vin's lips, encouraging the younger man to drink as much as possible when they entered.
"Hey cowboy, how ya feelin'?" Chris grinned taking the chair on the other side of the bed.
"Like... I... been... sh-shot." Vin quipped with a lopsided grin. "Wh-what happened?"
"We was hopin' ya could tell us." They watched seeing the confusion in the sleepy blue eyes as Vin searched his memory for the events that landed him in Nathan's clinic.
"Ez... where's Ez?" Pressing a gentle hand to his uninjured shoulder, Nathan held the smaller man down as Tanner struggled to sit up, his eyes frantically searching the room. "Whe-where's Ezra?"
"Take it easy Vin. Ezra took your patrol. He'll come see ya as soon as he gets back." Chris hoped the calm words would soothe the agitated sharpshooter. "I promise he'll visit the second he returns. Hell, you know Ezra, he won't be able to concentrate on poker until he knows you're okay."
"Bl-blee..." The words trailed off as the tea took effect, carrying the patient into a pain free sleep.
"Y'all might as well go home. He'll most likely sleep till mornin'." Nathan assured them, ushering the men toward the door. "I'll be on the cot if he needs anything."
"I wanna talk to Standish, the minute he sets foot back in town." Chris glared at the other men and with a last glance at Vin, made his way back to the saloon.
Larabee was sitting at his side when Vin's eyes fluttered open, the azure gaze slowly searching the room.
"Where's Ez?" Tanner licked at dry lips. "Chris..."
"Take it easy..." Larabee helped him sit up, pleased to see the hand that gripped the glass he offered was steady. Nathan returned with breakfast as Tanner finished the water, the happiness at seeing his patient awake and sitting up showing on his face.
"Where's Ez?" Tanner repeated his earlier question. "How come, I'm stuck in here and he ain't?"
"Because you needed to be here and he didn't." Nathan snapped, still angry at the gambler for the being the cause of Vin's injury. "Ya oughta know Ez always lands on his feet... It's everybody round him pays the price."
"So it was just a..." Tanner hesitated wanting to repeat his friend's words. "a... minor inconvenience?"
"I'm glad to know you think landing your ass in here so I can dig a bullet outta ya is a minor-"
"Not me... Ezra!" Vin tossed the covers back in exasperation, swinging his feet to the floor.
"Whoa... where the hell you think you're goin'?" Nathan pushed him back toward the pillows.
"To make sure Ez is okay. You sure don't seem to give a damn!" Obviously he was going to have to see Ezra for himself if he was going to get any straight answers.
"Vin, what happened yesterday?" Chris asked quietly, moving to sit beside the tracker an uneasiness taking hold of him at the sharpshooter's angry tone.
Nathan sank into the chair, his heart racing as Vin answered Larabee's question, quietly explaining how Ezra's arrival and subsequent intervention had not only saved his life but probably anyone else who might have entered the stable or tried to stop the three hunters. Regret washed over the healer as he remembered how he'd immediately blamed the gambler for Tanner's injury.
'Why am I always jumping to conclusions about Ezra?' He and Standish had gotten off to a rocky start but the healer did consider the man a friend. Not as close as Josiah or the others but a friend nonetheless. Ezra had stood beside him, fought beside him and defended him on more than one occasion. Standish had more than once proven himself to the others as someone they could depend on. Someone who would watch their backs and lay his own life on the line for them yet the healer still assumed the gambler's ways were the cause of most of the seven's troubles.
Nathan inwardly cringed, at the thought, he hadn't even been worried enough about the gambler to question if he had been injured in the altercation. Being Standish, he had automatically assumed the con man had protected his own ass first.
Hearing Chris assure the sharpshooter they would check on Ezra, Nathan rose automatically following the blond out the door.
"How's Vin?" Buck asked as they reached the bottom of the stairs. The happy go lucky man's heart raced at the expression of desolation on the healer's dark face. He, JD and Josiah had been on their way to check on their friend when Chris and Nathan exited.
"He's gonna be okay." Chris nodded. "Did anybody see Ezra come back in last night?" They exchanged glances, each waiting for the others to assure them the last member of their team was safely ensconced in his bed.
"I spoke to Inez last night. Said she hadn't laid eyes on him since he bought a couple bottles of whisky and went to his room." Josiah volunteered.
"Probably passed out drunk." Nathan muttered, praying this time he was jumping to the right conclusion.
"Josiah, check his room. Buck see if Chaucer's in the stables. Nathan, JD check the boarding house and restaurant. I know he don't normally eat breakfast but maybe we'll get lucky and he'll be havin' dinner if he just got back. Everybody meet back at the saloon."
"Kid that helps out at the stable said he ain't seen Chaucer since Ez left yesterday afternoon." Buck reported, entering the bar followed by JD and Nathan who also reported no one having seen the gambler since the previous afternoon.
"He had the morning patrol, maybe he just decided to spend the night on the trail and..." JD's words faded as all eyes turned to him their expressions skeptical. Each man knew, there was no way in hell Ezra would willingly spend the night sleeping on the hard ground when a soft bed was available. They also knew beyond a doubt the gambler wouldn't stay away, not knowing Vin's condition. Of the six other men, Ezra had grown closest to the tracker and no matter what, if he was able he wouldn't fail to check on him.
"Chris ya better come see this." Josiah called from the top of the stairs.
The four men dashed up the stairs and slid to a stop in the door of Ezra's rented room, their eyes traveling from the bloody shirt Josiah held to the pile of blood covered rags laying next to the wash basin.
"Saddle up." Larabee's words set the men in motion as effectively as a gunshot. "Nathan get what ya think you'll need. We'll bring your horse and meet ya at the clinic."
"Get the hell outta my way Nathan." Chris heard the words even before he opened the clinic door. He'd known to expect trouble when he saw one of the stable boys leading Peso outside, telling the leader of the peacekeepers, Vin had called him from the clinic balcony asking him to saddle the horse. Therefore, he wasn't surprised to find Vin dressed, his holster slung over his good shoulder, attempting to reach the clinic exit.
"Whatcha doin' Vin?" Chris asked calmly leaning against the door and lighting a cheroot.
"Goin' after Ez." Tanner's pale face was a picture of determination. "He needs help and I'm gonna find him."
A quick glance at Nathan and Chris knew the healer hadn't told Vin what they'd discovered in Ezra's room. Tanner was acting on instinct. In the past months, Vin had become almost as close to the gambler as he was to Larabee, wiggling his way past the defenses Ezra used to keep them all at arms length.
"Get your sorry ass back in that bed Tanner, you ain't in no condition to go nowhere." Nathan argued.
"I'm goin'... with or without ya... and iffen ya try to stop me, you're gonna need a doctor worse'n I do." He glanced at his best friend. "That goes for you too Larabee."
Larabee knew, time might be of the essence in finding the gambler and they had a better chance with Tanner along. He also knew leaving the Texan behind wasn't an option. Vin would only make good on his threat, searching for his friend alone. He could always shackle the man to the bed or leave one of the others to guard him but the end result would be Tanner worrying himself into a fit until they returned. "Ya plannin' on carryin' that gunbelt like that or would ya like some help puttin' it on?"
With a barely audible groan, Ezra fought to open his eyes, needing to see where he was in an effort to clear his muddled thoughts. He was so hot. The sun felt as if it were burning through his clothes, searing his skin, setting him on fire like a ant under a magnifying glass.
Forcing weak muscles to obey he struggled to raise his head. Questions crowded his mind as his blurry vision barely made out Chaucer grazing several yards away. Why was he laying on the ground? What was that noise? Water? Confused memories washed over the gambler as his emerald eyes settled on the tiny stream cutting through the countryside a few feet from where he lay.
He'd stopped... so thirsty... needed to change bandages. What bandages? Fear raced through him. Vin!... Vin was hurt!... Needed Nathan... Vin!... Shot... His fault!
Intense shivers suddenly racked his body as he tried to rise, sending him back into the blackness of oblivion to escape the excruciating pain.
Nathan nudged his horse closer to Vin meeting Larabee's look of concern as the tracker swayed in the saddle. No one knew which direction Ezra had begun his patrol and they'd spent most of the morning searching before Tanner had spotted his trail.
"Vin, drink some of this."
Seeing the herbs in the cup of water Nathan offered him, Tanner pushed it away. "Don't need any a your concoctions Nathan. Need to find Ez."
"It'll help with the pain Vin." The healer persisted. "You can't help Ezra iffen ya fall outta the saddle."
"Drink it Vin." Chris ordered.
"You drink it. I slept all night."
Reaching out Larabee grabbed the reins of Tanner's horse, pulling the animal to a stop. "Drink it or we turn back right now!" Chris put his best glare behind the vain threat. There was no way in hell he would return to town without Ezra or knowing what happened to their friend but he could always send Vin back with Josiah. In his weakened condition the ex-bounty hunter wouldn't be able to fight the giant preacher.
Vin's own glare said he knew the threat was nothing more than a poor attempt to force him to drink the medicine. The fact that he drank it was testimony to the pain throbbing relentlessly through his shoulder.
"Let's go!" Practically, throwing the cup at Nathan, Vin jerked the reins free of Chris' hand and nudged the animal forward.
Chris dismounted, moving to help Vin lower himself for a closer look at the tracks. He could see the sheen of sweat coating his friend's pale face and feel the heat building in his body. The sharpshooter was running on sheer willpower and his urgent need to find his friend.
"There... h-he went... through there." Leaving Vin with the others, Larabee walked in the direction Vin pointed finally spotting the barely discernable trace through the copse of trees.
"Nathan!" With a shout of alarm, Larabee began to run, his long legs carrying him toward Chaucer, ground hitched and grazing near the stream. The horse shied, prancing nervously away from the gunslinger, sensing his apprehension.
"Where is he Chaucer? Where's Ezra?" Catching the trailing reins as the horse tried to shy away, Chris talked softly as he rubbed the fearful animal's velvety muzzle. His hazel eyes swept the area, his heart skipping a beat as they settled on the prone body of the gambler, lying motionless among the trees on the bank of the stream.
"Ezra?" Dropping to his knees, aware of the approaching hoofbeats, the gunslinger eased the con man onto his back, his own complexion losing color at the amount of blood covering the front the gambler's frilled shirt. Opened saddle bags lay not far from his body, displaying the remains of the ripped up sheets and bottles of whiskey. "Ezra?... Ezra... can ya hear me?... Come on Ezra, ya can't do this to Vin... Ya can't do this to me!"
Chris forced a smile as the dark lashes fluttered ever so lightly and the emerald eyes struggled to focus on his face.
"V-Vin... hrt..." The tip of Standish's tongue swiped at his dry lips. "M-my... fa-ault..."
"No it wasn't! You..." The words trailed off as Chris realized the man couldn't hear him. Beside him, Larabee was suddenly aware of Nathan shouting out orders to the other men.
"Josiah build a fire! I'm gonna need a lot a hot water." The healer had already ripped open Ezra's shirt and stripped away the blood soaked bandages, swearing under his breath at the red lines of infection streaking away from the oozing wound.
JD quickly stripped the saddle from Chaucer, and hurried to find more wood for the small blaze Josiah had started. Buck had settled Vin near the fire, moving to start the water boiling. The younger man's blue eyes never left Ezra as Chris gently lifted the gambler carrying him to the bedroll Josiah had spread out.
"I know how he feels about this," Nathan commented pulling a small bottle of laudanum from his bag, "but I wanna save him as much pain as possible. I've got to clean the wound and it's gonna hurt like hell."
The semi-conscious gambler turned his head away the moment the bitter medicine touched his lips, his hands weakly flaying at the bottle containing the objectionable liquid.
Supporting the gambler against his chest, Chris snatched the bottle from Nathan. "You drink this Ezra or so help me God, when we get back to town I'll cut up every deck of cards in Four Corners." Chris pressed the bottle to his mouth, cussing as the obstinate southerner buried his face in Larabee's shirt front to escape the medicine, his breathing becoming more labored. "Damnit Ezra I'm not kidding!!! I'll have your sorry ass banned from every poker game within a thousand miles!"
The other five men exchanged smiles as gagging and choking, a grimace of disgust and pain distorting his handsome face, the con man managed to swallow a healthy dose of the medicine.
"That's a good little gambler," Larabee joked, brushing the stray curls off Ezra's damp forehead. "Just relax and let it do its job."
He continued to hold the con man, talking soothingly until he was certain Ezra was completely under the influence of the drug before helping Nathan remove his shirt and jacket.
"Chris you're gonna have to hold him." They laid the smaller man on his side bracing him against Larabee's chest. "Hopefully he won't feel any of this but I'm not counting on it."
Josiah grabbed Ezra's legs as releasing a muffled groan, he kicked out trying to twist away from the pain each time Nathan placed a hot cloth against the wound, letting the heat draw out the poison, pushing against the skin to force the puss from the wound. Chris held the gambler tighter, bending his head to speak soothingly in his ear.
It was late afternoon before Nathan was satisfied with the immediate results, afraid the con man was too weak to continue. They lay Ezra back, covering him with several blankets and Nathan turned his attention to Vin, changing the dressing on his shoulder and brewing the tracker a cup of herbal tea to fight the pain and climbing fever.
"Buck you and JD head back to town and bring a wagon out in the morning." Chris ordered, taking the cup of whiskey laced coffee his long time friend held out. "Fill it with hay and blankets. Make the ride back for these two as comfortable as possible."
"We'll take care of it. You take care of them." Motioning to the two sleeping men. Clapping a large hand on JD's shoulder, Wilmington steered the youngster to the horses.
Tossing Chaucer's reins to JD he ponied Peso, grinning at Chris. "Gonna be kinda hard for Vin to insist on ridin' iffen his horse ain't here. See ya in the mornin'."
Nathan lay the cool cloth against Ezra's forehead, wondering again why he always found blame with the younger man. The answer had been simple in the beginning. He saw in Ezra everything he'd suffered, hated and left behind in the south. Even the southerner's lazy drawl brought back terrible memories of life before the war. Memories of the atrocities of slavery. Just as he imagined Ezra saw nothing more than a freed slave each time he looked at him.
Generations of hate and prejudice were hard to replace but as they grew to know each other, a tentative friendship had developed growing into a mutual respect. Nathan had seen too many people lose everything they worked for all their lives to con men and swindlers to tolerate people who made their living off the misery of others but as it had been pointed out to him many times, Ezra wasn't like that.
In truth Nathan didn't need it brought to his attention. He knew the man had changed since joining the peacekeepers of Four Corners. Had even wondered if Ezra had ever been able to walk away, leaving his victims destitute. The man had a conscience and a kind heart. So why couldn't Nathan see past that when trouble arose? Why did he always assume the gambler was in the wrong?
"Why the hell would he go on patrol in that condition?" Larabee growled angrily throwing another piece of wood into the fire, sending a shower of sparks heavenward. Angry at the southerner for putting his life in danger, angry at himself for jumping to the same conclusion Nathan had, he really didn't expect an answer.
"Because of me." The healer admitted guiltily. "I goaded him into it. I assumed the whole thing in the stables was his fault. I was so damn mad at him for getting Vin hurt I didn't even think to find out if he was okay. When JD said something about takin Vin's patrol, I told him to let Ezra do it. Said it was his fault and the damn fool stood there in the clinic and agreed with me. Said JD needed to protect the town. He never said a damn word about bein' hurt! Never asked for help... Course can't blame him there." He shook his head, his voice bitter with self recrimination. "I shoulda knowed to check him too. Shoulda knowed..."
Awakened by their voices, Josiah said nothing pretending to sleep, waiting to see how Larabee would handle this latest development. They were all aware of the cautious friendship between the gambler and the healer. Nathan's high morals and ethics often overshadowed his common sense where the con man was concerned, blinding him to the goodness inside Ezra.
Chris stared into his cup for several minutes, choosing his words carefully. "I know Ezra doesn't blame you for any of this. We all, especially you and me, have a tendency to see Ezra as a... scapegoat at times and for some reason I don't understand he lets us get away with it... Well most of the time anyway... I don't know, maybe he thinks it's redemption for the things he's done in his life... Hell, we all need that, not just him... But damnit, he's part of this family... I guess all we can do is try to remember to wait until we know the whole story, apologize for our mistakes and more importantly remember what a stubborn, dig his heels in and fight all the way, jackass we're dealing with."
"Vin!" Ezra's scream ripped through the night air causing Chris and Josiah to scramble to their feet, weapons in hand. Caught in the delirium filled nightmare, the man thrashed about crying out for his friend, begging forgiveness, pleading with the healer to save the tracker. Larabee and Josiah held him still while Nathan forced small sips of tea down him.
"Can't ya give him some more laudanum Nate?" Josiah questioned.
"He needs the tea ta help with the fever and there ain't that much laudanum left. Wanna save it for cleaning the wound in the morning... Damnit!" He swore as the liquid splashed over the rim running down his arm.
"Ezra?... Ezra listen to me." Surprised by the soft western drawl, they turned to see the lanky Texan crawl from his bedroll, taking the gambler's hand. "Ezra, listen to me... It's Vin... I'm fine Ezra... I'm gonna be okay... It weren't your fault... Ya saved my life Ezra..." As he spoke the smaller man began to calm. Tanner continued to talk softly, urging his friend to drink the tea, to sleep, to get better. Assuring him, he wasn't alone, they were all there to help him.
Josiah quietly moved Vin's bedroll over next to Ezra's where the tracker spent the rest of the night, one hand resting comfortingly on the gambler's arm.
"Ezra, I owe ya an apology." Nathan pulled the chair closer to the bed, forcing himself to meet the gambler's steady gaze. It had taken two days for both men's fever to break, leaving them weak but well on the road to recovery.
"Might I inquire why?" Ezra appeared genuinely confused. "If I'm not mistaken you have spent the past several days, saving my life."
"Your life wouldn't have needed savin' if I hadn't jumped to conclusions. I-" He held up a hand stopping Ezra's protest. "I blamed you for that whole incident at the livery without knowin' or even askin' what happened. JD knew somethin' was wrong but I didn't listen or even ask iffen you were okay? I consider you a good friend Ezra but I didn't act like one. You have my word I'm gonna try and do better by ya."
"Mr. Jackson. I thank you for that sincere although completely unnecessary apology. You have proven, more than once, the true meaning of friendship and for that I also thank you." Ezra graced him with a dimpled grin as the healer shook the hand he extended. "Now Mr. Jackson, is there any possibility of persuadin' ya to effect our release from this den of illness back to our own habitats?"
"He wants to know if we can get outta here today." Translating, Vin shifted positions, rolling over to face the other two occupants of the small clinic.
"Aww hell, Nathan, we ate three meals yesterday and stayed in bed just like ya wanted. Ya let us get dressed this mornin'... at least ya let us put on our pants..."
"That was so ya didn't have to go to the privy in just your long johns not so ya could go traipsin' off to the saloon or that wagon ya use to keep the rain off." Nathan explained.
"We already been here a couple days... and ya gotta admit, we ain't been givin' ya a hard time... I think we're ready to head home." Tanner argued. "I'm startin' to get... clausi... cla..."
"Claustrophobic." Ezra provided.
"Ya ain't been givin' me a hard time cause ya been sleepin' most a the time. Behave yourselves and I'll let ya outta here in two days." Nathan stood, stretching the kinks from his back. "Now, I'm gonna go get us some lunch. I want ya both to give me your word, you'll watch each other." The healer didn't think either man had the strength to get out of bed by themselves but he'd dealt with each of them and knew the saying 'where there's a will, there's a way,' definitely applied to his two patients. With a self satisfied smile as they nodded in agreement, he closed the door behind him.
"Whatcha doin Ez?" Tanner asked with a puzzled frown as the gambler lay motionless, moving his lips silently.
"Counting... Twenty." Ezra tossed the covers aside and swung his feet over the side of the bed, giving the room time to stop spinning before slowly standing. Moving to the window he peeked out in time to see Nathan enter the saloon. Easing himself into the chair, he pulled on his boots before moving to the closet. "Like you Mr. Tanner, I'm feeling claustrophobic and could use a bit of fresh air as well." Rummaging through a box, he emerged triumphantly holding a full bottle of whiskey giving the tracker a dimpled grin. "Care to join me outside for a libation?"
"How'd ya know that was there?" Vin questioned as he settled on the side of his bed and shoved his feet into his boots.
"Simple logic. A good physician such as our Mr. Jackson always keeps a bottle around for medicinal purposes to treat snakebite victims and such."
Vin wandered over and looked down in the box, grinning. "He ain't got the snake in there too, does he?" At Ezra's soft chuckle, he jerked his head toward the door. "I know a place down by the crik where they'll never think to look. Real nice and peaceful."
Ezra pulled the blanket from Vin's bed placing it around the slim man's shoulders before doing the same with his own blanket. "Winter is sneaking up on us. These will have to suffice since our coats seemed to have been misplaced. Wouldn't want to take a chance on catching a chill and havin' to spend even more time under the watchful eye of Mr. Jackson."
"Ya know Ez I never got the chance ta thank ya proper for whatcha did for me." Vin passed the smaller man the bottle. They'd gotten no further than the stables, neither man having the strength to saddle their horse, settling in the hay behind the very bales, they'd used for cover several days earlier.
"Please Mr. Tanner, think nothing of it. You would do the same for me." Ezra formed the words carefully, looking at the half empty bottle, the alcohol working quickly in their weakened systems. "That... that's what... fam... friends do."
"You was gonna say family." Vin wiggled a finger at him grinning foolishly. "Admit it... you... Shhhh..." He stopped slapping a hand over Ezra's mouth. "Somebody's comin' and iffen ya don't shut up they're gonna find us."
Grabbing the bottle he tilted his head back, bursting into laughter as he found himself looking straight up into Larabee's hazel eyes, choking as the liquor went down the wrong way. "I think they found us... told ya, ya had to ke-keep quiet."
Carefully peeling away each finger, Ezra removed the tracker's hand from his mouth. The gambler took the bottle and after taking a long pull offered it to the blond peacekeeper. "Care to join us for an afternoon libatation... libanation... lib... a drink."
"You do realize Nathan is probably gonna chain your sorry asses to the bed for this little excursion don't ya?"
"Not if you don't tell him where we are, Mr. Larabee." Standish smiled.
"Won't do no good." Tanner snorted nudging the southerner with his elbow. "Ol' Ez'll just pick the locks."
"I guarantee we shall happily return before h-he mishes us." The southerner stated, weaving slightly as he squared his shoulders.
"I think it's a little late for that!" Chris chuckled.
"You got that damn straight!" The healer stood over them, his hands on his hips giving his patients a glare that rivaled any of Larabee's. "Where the hell did you get this!" He snatched the bottle from Ezra's hands as the gambler raised it to his lips.
"From the box in the back a yer closet." Ezra grinned, his honest answer drawing laughter from the rest of the men.
"Couldn't find the damn snake though, " Vin muttered, the slurred words bringing a quickly hidden smile to Chris' face. "He didn't wanna be in the clinic neither."
"I can't believe you two! I trusted you!" Nathan roared indignantly. "Ya gave me your word, you'd watch each other."
"Your trust was by no... no means misplaced. I assure you Mr. Jackson, in no manner did we fail to keep the sacred oath we made to you." Failing miserably, Ezra tried to look offended that Nathan would even think such a thing, let alone voice it as he adjusted the blanket around Vin's shoulders before pulling his own tighter. "We said we'd watch ea-each other and... and that's just wh-what we did."
"That's right Nate. I watched Ezra get that bottle and sneak right out the door." Vin smiled proudly, blinking rapidly in an effort to bring the healer into focus.
"And I, in turn, watched Mr. Tanner follow me." Even Nathan couldn't stifle his laughter as the two friends broke down in drunken giggles. The five men watched in amusement as propping each other up, the giggles faded, and their eyes slid closed.
"I guess we better get these two back to bed afore they end up with pneumonia." Nathan shook his head as the men moved to lift their drunken friends. "JD, run down to the jail and fetch a couple of sets of leg irons..." With a smile of satisfaction, the healer moved to the stall and fingered the rope hanging from Vin's saddle. "...I'll teach them to steal my whiskey and sneak outta my clinic!!!"
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