A More Desperate Circumstance
by Dani O'Malley
Disclaimer: I don't own The Magnificent Seven, this story was written purely for fun with no profit made.
Warnings: Some content may be disturbing to sensitive readers. This story is fairly violent. There is also some angst, with hints of more angst to come. A tiny bit of bad language. But mostly, it's violent.
Author's Notes: This story is a sequel to When The Skies Opened, but will still make sense if you haven't read it first. I got very useful information from: http://www.geocities.com/colt45.geo/Guide/gunguide.html, which was a great resource on the weapons used by the old west Magnificent Seven, and also provided some helpful info on the treatment of a bullet wound in the 19th century. Apart from that, though, everything I know about medicine I learned from watching Scrubs.
Summary: Ezra and Nathan encounter some trouble while returning from Eagle Bend.
Feedback: Yes, please! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to: When The Skies Opened
It was a crisp autumn day, pleasant weather for traveling, and Ezra and Nathan were halfway back from Eagle Bend.
They had been escorting a prisoner to Eagle Bend to stand trial for cattle rustling. Nathan didn't usually take part in escorting prisoners to their trials. That task generally fell to those whose presence wasn't so vital in Four Corners, but, since it was only a short trip, and Nathan felt like a change of pace, not to mention needing a few medical supplies, he had volunteered. And Ezra, well, he never volunteered for anything, but it was his turn, so the two of them had set off together. They had arrived in the late afternoon the day before, and spent the evening relaxing in the town. Ezra had wanted to stay longer, but Nathan had been anxious to return to Four Corners. He hadn't minded being away from town overnight, but he didn't like to be gone for too long. The others made fun of him, and called him a worrywart, but in Nathan's experience it was simply best to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
So, ignoring Ezra's grumbling, he had prepared to leave at midmorning and dragged his stubborn companion out of bed at half past seven, which was, apparently, a 'completely uncivilised and deplorable time of day'.
Ezra had been decent company for most of the trip, really. He had pulled his weight on the way to Eagle Bend, and Nathan knew he could count on Ezra to watch his back. Once he'd poured some coffee down Ezra's throat and let the man wake up a bit, he had even helped Nathan find the few things he needed for the clinic which he couldn't get in Four Corners. Overall, everything had gone smoothly. Nathan thought that he and Ezra were becoming friends. Oh, they were already friends, he supposed, but he was starting to think of Ezra as a good friend, someone he could ask for help if he needed it, or confide in. He hoped Ezra was feeling the same change. He thought so.
They had been on the trail for about an hour and a half, when Nathan heard a horse approaching quickly from behind them. He and Ezra turned to see, and were immediately startled by a flurry of gunshots coming from in front of them. They pulled their horses to a halt, and moved off the path towards the dubious cover of some stubby trees and bushes. The horse came into view, its rider firing at them as he grew near. Ezra and Nathan had both drawn their own weapons. Nathan was trying to locate the source of the shots coming from in front of them, but wasn't successful. Ezra was between him and the rapidly gaining horse, and fired a succession of shots at the rider. Nathan made it to the small group of trees, still having failed to find the shooters ahead of them. He thought they had to be up on the hillside, where they had ample cover behind several large boulders, but he couldn't catch a glimpse of them.
Quickly dismounting, Nathan realised that Ezra was no longer beside him. Uttering a quiet curse, he saw that Ezra had fallen from Chaucer and was lying in the open. The other rider was laying a short distance away, and his horse was heading back the way it had come, clearly spooked by the loud gunfire.
The shooters didn't seem to be aiming for Ezra now; instead their fire was concentrating on the area where Nathan was concealed. The scrubby bushes didn't offer much protection against the bullets, but they did make it more difficult for the shooters to aim at their target. Nathan's mind raced. He had to get to Ezra, and then he had to get the both of them to better cover.
Glancing behind him, Nathan could see what looked like a scrubby depression in the ground. It might offer shelter for a few minutes, if he could just get himself and Ezra to it.
Getting to Ezra would be the hard part. Nathan examined the hillside where their attackers were concealed. It looked like there were five or six of them, and there was no way of knowing how much ammunition they had, or if they had reinforcements nearby. Hell, he didn't even know why they were attacking.
Nathan drew his Remington, but didn't fire. If they thought he wasn't armed they might become careless and give him an opportunity to take them by surprise. It was a chance he couldn't afford to waste.
The shooting stopped suddenly, and Nathan heard what sounded like a muffled argument, although he couldn't make out the words. Then two men stepped out of their cover and made their way down the hill, towards Ezra, their weapons held at their sides. Nathan waited, but it seemed only two men had been sent down. The others would be providing cover. He crouched behind a slender tree trunk, trying to aim his revolver while concealing what he was doing. He waited until the men were close, wanting to be sure that he could eliminate both of them quickly and accurately. He wanted to wait until they were nearly at the other side of the track; close enough to hit easily, but not so close that they could see that he was armed. It seemed to take hours for them to draw near; he wanted to shout at them to hurry up and stop dawdling. Then, suddenly they seemed almost too close, and he was sure he had missed his chance. He squeezed the trigger, hitting the first man square in the chest, and firing on the second one at the same time as he sprang from his crouch and launched himself into the open. He dashed towards Ezra, dodging from side to side in an effort to impede the aim of anyone trying to shoot him, and at the same time squeezing off a few shots up the hillside. He was sure he wouldn't hit anything, but it might discourage his attackers. He reached Ezra's side, and in one smooth movement, holstered his gun and slung the injured man over his shoulder. He turned and headed back, thinking that this was madness, he could never pull this off without getting himself and Ezra killed. But he hadn't been killed yet, had he?
Nathan realised that loud gunshots were still echoing; apparently whoever was trying to kill them hadn't given up. He hadn't been aware of the shots while he was running towards Ezra, but he could hear them now, and it seemed amazing he hadn't yet been hit. He passed the stand of trees and kept going, hoping that they might be a little safer on the other side, if they were lucky.
Of course, it hadn't been a very lucky day for them so far.
Nathan reached the depression and scrambled down into what turned out to be a shallow ravine. He edged down the sides as rapidly as he could, trying not to fall and simply hoping he didn't make Ezra's injuries any worse as he did so. He hesitated slightly at the bottom, but then turned left, heading deeper into the ravine. He shuffled on as quickly as he could down the, feet slipping on the loose rocks on the ground. He hoped that he would soon find a good spot to hole up. Away from the urgency of being shot at, he was able to notice how heavy Ezra was. Not that Ezra was a big man, but he wasn't light, either.
Before too long the ravine turned a corner and Nathan gently put Ezra down in a small corner between the wall and an outcrop of rock. They were protected on two sides, but horribly exposed from above the opposite wall. If their attackers were stupid, they would climb down into the ravine and walk along it. If they were clever, they would split up and go along on top of the creek, to attack from higher ground. Nathan hoped they were stupid.
He checked over Ezra, noting with a grimace that blood had flowed over his face and run down the side of his neck, soaking into his coat and shirt. He found that the source of the blood was a deep graze on the left side of Ezra's scalp, just above and behind his ear. Like all head wounds, it had bled a great deal, and Nathan could only be grateful the wound hadn't been fatal. He ripped a strip from the bottom of his shirt and tied it over the wound, and then checked Ezra for other injuries. He had been shot in the right shoulder, the bullet thankfully passing through. Nathan bandaged that too. He found one more bullet wound, on the right side of Ezra's back. The bullet was still inside. Nathan frowned. Ezra had been laying face down where he had fallen, and Nathan was sure he would have noticed the wound when he was lifting Ezra up. If that was the case, Ezra must have been shot after that, when Nathan had slung him over his shoulder and was bolting for cover. A horrible sick feeling spread over Nathan as he realised he had allowed Ezra to be injured even while he was trying to save him. He knew he was being unreasonable; it had been an incredible risk to even try to get to Ezra, and he couldn't control everything. But a voice inside him still whispered softly; that he had known what a risk he was taking, and he had thrown Ezra over his shoulder so that Ezra was between himself and the bullets. Nathan shook his head briefly. He hadn't really taken that into consideration, had he? He wasn't sure... but surely he hadn't, and besides, even if he had, it had been the most sensible thing to do. If he had been shot, he wouldn't have been able to get Ezra to safety at all. The voice still whispered that a real friend wouldn't have thought of something like that, and it was his fault that Ezra had a bullet inside him now, and was looking paler and weaker with every second. His fault.
Nathan couldn't bandage the wound in Ezra's side. He was thinking about lifting Ezra up again and trying to find a more defensible place, but at that moment he heard a soft rustling. He slowly drew his gun and pressed his back against the side of the creek bed, looking up and waiting. He saw two men appear on the opposite bank. They saw him at the same time and raised their guns. Nathan quickly lifted his and fired first. He missed, and when he tried to fire a second time he only heard the clicking of the firing pin. So busy taking care of Ezra, he hadn't thought to reload his gun. The men on the opposite bank sneered at him, enjoying his position, his knowledge of his own imminent death. The younger one stepped back, lowering his gun, while the other raised his slowly, slowly, his eyes never leaving Nathan's face. The barrel was nearly level with Nathan's chest when he acted, grabbing his best knife from the brace on his back and throwing it. It struck the man in the throat, and he let out a horrible gurgling yell, falling backwards while the kid behind him moved to catch him. Nathan hefted Ezra once more, moving down the creek bed and keeping close to the left wall. He heard a few gunshots but luckily it seemed his adversaries weren't able to get a clear shot. He heard someone speaking, and guessed it was the boy, saying, over and over, "He's killed Jim, Andy. He's done killed Jim. He's killed him."
The ravine gradually became deeper and wider, and the sparse scrub disappeared entirely as it opened out into a canyon. Nathan wondered if their attackers, whoever they were, had given up, or if they were still following some distance behind. He didn't wonder anymore who they were or what they wanted. He just wanted to get out of this alive. He wondered when Chris and the others would begin to wonder about them. He didn't have a watch, but he didn't think it could have been more than half an hour since he and Ezra were first attacked. They wouldn't be overdue in Four Corners for a while yet, and even then, Chris probably wouldn't get worried until evening. There were so many simple and harmless things that could hold up a trip; evening would be the absolute earliest when the others would begin to worry about them. He was on his own.
He was still keeping to the left wall of the shallow canyon, but was becoming worried as it grew wider and there was no cover. Up ahead he saw a dark opening, and moved towards it. As he drew closer he could see that it was the entrance of an old mine. He sighed with relief. He could get Ezra into some shelter, and be in a much more defensible position. On the downside, the mine was an obvious place to hide, and once their assailants found him, they could easily trap him in there. But there were simply no other options. He couldn't keep carrying Ezra, it wouldn't do his injured friend any good and he was getting too tired to keep going.
He reached the mine and shuffled inside a little, until there was just enough light to see by. He placed Ezra on the ground and moved back to the entrance, looking around the canyon. He couldn't see anything moving. His gun was empty, and all his spare ammunition was with his horse. He wished he had his rifle but he hadn't expected to need it, and knowing that he'd be bringing a few things back from Eagle Bend, he hadn't wanted to take too much with him. He grabbed Ezra's gun from his hip holster and checked it. Three bullets left. He checked the gun in Ezra's shoulder holster, which was still fully loaded, and placed them both within easy reach. Then he sat by Ezra where he could tend to his friend while keeping an eye on the entrance.
He checked the head wound. The graze was deep, but looked fairly clean. He longed for some alcohol to clean it with, but all his medical supplies in his saddlebags, along with the extra ammo. It had stopped bleeding, so he left the bandage off, and moved to check the hole in Ezra's shoulder. As he lowered Ezra to the ground, he saw that his friend's eyes were open, but unfocused.
"Ezra?" Nathan asked, wondering if he were really awake, if he was aware at all of his surroundings.
Ezra's eyes wandered towards Nathan, but still didn't look directly at him. "Edward Saunders, at your service, sir."
Nathan frowned; this didn't bode well.
"I hear you own several lucrative businesses in this locality. I wonder if I could buy you a drink? I have a proposition I really think you ought to hear."
Nathan sighed. The blow to the head seemed to have addled Ezra's senses. There wasn't much he could do about that, though, even if he were in his clinic, except hope that it wasn't permanent. He decided not to unwrap the bindings around Ezra's shoulder; since he had nothing to clean the wound with there was no sense in disturbing his makeshift dressing and maybe allowing more dirt to get into it. He checked to make sure that the bleeding was slowing, and then looked towards the still bleeding hole in Ezra's side. He was contemplating how to bandage it securely when he heard a noise from outside the mine. He grabbed Ezra's gun and slipped silently towards the mine's entrance.
He crouched to the right of the mine's entrance, looking out. The sound that had alerted him was a little louder now, and he could make out the sound of two voices speaking softly. He saw four men walking along the canyon. All four of them spotted the mine's entrance at the same time, and lifted their guns, spraying a hail of bullets in Nathan's direction. Nathan cursed and scrambled deeper into the mine, where it was safer. He could his skin being scraped by shards of rock broken and thrown about by the heavy gunfire, but dismissed that as unimportant. He grabbed hold of Ezra's ankles and dragged him deeper into the mine, to where it began to slope downwards. The floor's gradual decline gave them some additional protection, and Nathan grabbed a few large rocks lying around and piled them up, making a low wall. It wasn't much, but the best he could do.
The men approaching had slowed their onslaught, but still let an occasional burst of gunfire into the mine, so Nathan didn't dare move from his cover, such as it was. He guessed that the men were standing just outside when there was a minute or two of total silence. He rested his gun in a gap he'd left between two of the rocks, so he could aim without raising his head. A few moments later, two men began slowly making their way into the mine, rifles held before them. They didn't fire, and Nathan realised they probably couldn't see much in the darkness. He lined his shot up carefully, and hit the man on the left in the chest, then continued shooting rapidly, knowing that the other man would now know where he was. The other man dashed out of the mine, while the one Nathan had shot collapsed to the ground and didn't move.
Nathan grabbed a couple more rocks for his makeshift shelter, piling them in front of Ezra who needed the extra protection more. He wondered what their attackers would try next. On the one hand, there were now only three left, but on the other hand, he was sure he had pushed his luck as far as it would go.
Nathan waited, frustrated by the helplessness of his position. Ever since this bizarre attack had begun, he had been forced to wait for their adversaries to act. He was sure that, having underestimated him twice now, the men outside would put a little more thought into their next attack.
He was proved right. He glimpsed someone briefly at the mine's entry, but before he could line up a shot, the man had tossed something inside. Even if he hadn't been able to hear the ominous hissing, the light cast by the burning fuse told him clearly enough what it was. For a second, Nathan panicked. There was a stick of lit dynamite in the mine and he and Ezra were about to get blown up. He struggled to pull himself together, and came up with an idea perhaps twice as foolhardy as anything else he'd attempted that day. He grabbed a knife from his brace and threw it, watching with relief as it sliced through the burning fuse. The cut end of the fuse burned itself out harmlessly and the small light faded.
Nathan wondered what the men outside would do once they realised the dynamite wasn't going to explode. He waited a few minutes without moving, and was rewarded a few minutes later by a second flurry of movement, in the same place as before. This time, he was ready, firing low, and hearing a scream of startled pain. Nathan snatched his final knife and threw it as he had the last, simply hoping it would not strike a spark and blow them to hell anyway. At least it was near enough to the mouth of the mine it might take some of their attackers with them.
But the knife cut through the fuse as cleanly as the last one, the blade sticking an inch or so into the dirt floor. Nathan allowed a small sound of relief to escape. He hoped they were out of dynamite, because he was out of knives. He shook his head slightly. Who rode around with dynamite in their saddlebags anyway? Hell, sounded like something Ezra would do.
With that thought he remembered his injured comrade. He turned to check on Ezra, but could only make out the man's faint outline. He placed his hand lightly on Ezra's chest, and sagged with relief when he felt it move up and down. Ezra was still holding on.
Nathan's breathing became steadier as he focused on Ezra's, and he realised he could hear people talking outside. A young voice was calling for Andy, and an older man was replying that everything was going to be fine, that someone called 'kid' was going to be fine. The kid replied, "There's so much blood, Andy! Why is there so much blood?"
The kid began to cry, and the older man said roughly, "Shut up!" Nathan's fingers tightened a little on Ezra's chest. He must have shot the young man, who had been with Jim before. He'd been aiming low, to avoid the explosive. Must have got him in the thigh, in the artery. The kid would be dead in a few minutes.
He remembered so long ago, in the Seminole village, telling a patient he preferred to heal rather than kill. At some point during the war, he had become grateful that he had been given the chance to save lives rather than take them. He didn't like to kill, and it seemed that this day had been one bloody death after another. He especially hated it when the one dying was someone young, who with better chances and different choices could have been a decent person. But there was no help for it now.
A calculating voice inside him spoke up. It was one he'd been ignoring all day, the one that said Ezra was dead weight... probably literally... and he should leave him and save himself. Now it said that the two remaining men might be distracted by the young kid's death, and he should make use of that. He hated the idea of listening to that voice. He felt like he'd be less of a man if he did. But if he did, he might still be alive.
Nathan picked up Ezra's hip gun. His shoulder gun was empty now. He checked the gun again, but there were still only three bullets in it. He set his jaw. It would have to be enough. Of course, there was always... He picked up Ezra's right hand and squeezed the wrist, causing the derringer to pop out. He tucked the small weapon in his pocket, letting the handle stick out so he could reach it. As he began to place Ezra's hand on the ground, the other man's fingers twitched and turned to clasp his wrist in return. "Don't go," Ezra whispered softly.
"Aw, hell, Ez." Nathan was relieved at this sign of Ezra's returning wits, but saddened that he couldn't do what his friend asked. "I have to go. I have to."
"No. Please, stay, Sir. Please. We're outnumbered."
"Don't go. You should wait for reinforcements." Ezra pulled weakly on Nathan's arm and lowered his voice. "You don't have to kill every damn Yankee yourself."
Nathan pried Ezra's fingers loose and stepped away, watching for signs of his friend trying to follow. But Ezra's moment of not-quite-lucidity seemed to have passed. Nathan pushed aside the disappointment of knowing that Ezra's senses weren't returning at all. He was simply reliving some memory of the war. He walked towards the light.
The kid's voice had grown very weak, and slow. As Nathan reached the entrance the kid's words stopped and he knew the boy was gone. Determined not to waste another moment, he stepped out and lifted his gun. There was one man with his back to him, crouching over the kid's body. Another man was facing him, and from the looks of it he was already wounded. Blood had marred the entire front of his shirt and run down his chin. Nathan recognised him, in an absent sort of way, as the second man who had been sent down the hill to get Ezra so long ago, as he fired a second bullet into the man's right shoulder. He fell back but Nathan was already turning his weapon towards the second man. This must be Andy. He was big, with graying dark hair and a scar on his chin. He had a mean look about him and a Winchester in his right hand, which Nathan only noticed as he felt the impact of a bullet in his right arm. Dammit.
He dropped his gun... Ezra's gun... and scrambled back inside the mine. He tried to work the little derringer out of his right pocket with his left hand, expecting at every second a bullet between the eyes. He finally got the peashooter in his hand and held it up. He waited, wondering what was taking so damn long. His heart raced and his hand shook, though he tried to steady it. He heard a noise outside and tensed all over, ready. He fired the second he saw movement, feeling a fierce satisfaction as he saw the figure jerk and collapse in time with his shot. He was so elated with the prospect of survival that it took him a second to realise the body was a younger, smaller man than he'd been expecting. It was the kid... the kid's body. Andy had used him as a decoy. Nathan felt a moment of revulsion so strong he could barely stand it, at the idea of someone doing something so vile. He could see the hole he had made in the center of the kid's chest, only a little blood leaking out as his heart no longer pumped. He forced back his feelings and got his stomach under control. No time for that now.
Nathan turned his attention back to where Andy should appear. A second moment of movement made his hand twitch, but he was expecting it this time and controlled himself. It was a hat, he wasn't sure who's. Following close on the heels of the hat came motion near the ground. Nathan aimed, sure this time, sure that he would end it, he had to. The bullet from Andy's gun gouged a chunk of rock out of the mine ceiling above Nathan's head, while Nathan, his hand suddenly steady, fired and saw a small red dot form on his opponent's forehead. Andy slumped down as the blood ran down his face and onto the ground, turning the dirt and dust into dirty red mud.
Nathan sagged against the side of the mine, only then noticing how utterly exhausted he was. He thought he could sleep until Christmastime, but, his gaze falling on his knife sticking out of the ground, he realised there was more to do. He should check on that man outside, and make sure he was really dead. Then he needed to do something for Ezra.
Outside the mine, squinting in the brightness, (why hadn't it seemed so bright before?) he saw that the blood covered man wasn't dead after all. He was alive, and conscious, although barely. He was feebly trying to reach his gun, which had fallen a few feet away. Nathan leaned down and grabbed the gun, checking it to find there were four bullets inside. He felt a little more comfortable being armed once more. He checked the man for other weapons, finding none, though he did find a flask of whiskey. Then he went back into the mine to fetch Ezra.
Ezra was lying very still, but Nathan checked and found him still breathing. He awkwardly lifted him with one arm, and got Ezra into a position where he could be carried, although not far. He began to maneuver Ezra outside, and was a little startled when he heard his friend speak.
"I didn't break the vase," Ezra mumbled, "It was Esther."
Nathan tried to suppress his laugher, knowing if he didn't he'd likely drop Ezra. It just seemed absurd, after the day they'd had, to hear Ezra sounding so distraught over a broken vase. He wondered who Esther was. Wasn't that the name of that dog he'd had as a boy? He couldn't remember, but he was sure it had started with an E. He could picture Ezra, as a child, breaking something and trying to blame it on his dog. A little conman from the start. Nathan gently lowered Ezra to the ground, and tried to decide what to do next.
Simplest first, he reasoned, and he pulled off his shirt to inspect the hole in his arm. He was relieved to see that the bullet had gone through and the bone wasn't broken. He couldn't use the arm, the muscle was probably torn, but it would heal in time. He had found a flask of whiskey when he searched the man who was still alive, and used it to clean his wound, being sparing with it so there would be enough for Ezra too. The pain still made him groan. He clumsily bandaged it with a strip of his shirt, and looked towards the last man. He was sure the man was dying. The first bullet had clearly pierced his lung, he could hear it when the man breathed. Nathan wondered how he had got this far. There was nothing he could do to save his life, but he felt compelled to check anyway.
A long time ago, during the war, two stretcher-bearers had bought him a confederate soldier and asked him to do what he could. Doctors were scarce, and when injuries became frequent Nathan was asked to assist in the hospital tents. But that was the first time he'd been asked to tend a patient on his own.
Nathan had looked at the man's wound, and looked at his surgical instruments, and had found himself facing a horribly fascinating temptation. This man's life was in his hands. Someone who had probably shot at friends of his, who was fighting to return him and every other black person in the states to slavery. He could let the man die. No one would notice. The soldier's wound was serious enough that his recovery was unlikely anyway. Even if someone did suspect, they probably wouldn't act on it. The prisoner had been entrusted to Nathan because he didn't matter. Prison camps were getting crowded and medical supplies were low. No one would mourn the death of one Rebel prisoner.
For a minute, Nathan had considered the beguiling option. It was a way to release all that anger, all the fury he had hoped to find an outlet for when he signed up. And after all, didn't the man deserve to die?
Once the minute was up, Nathan picked up his tools and went to work. He removed every piece of shrapnel, cleaned the wound thoroughly even though the pain made the soldier cry out in his laudanum induced sleep, and stitched it as neatly as he could.
The doctors had noticed him after that. Well, they had before, but now they really seemed to see him, to see someone who mattered. Even though a couple said it would have been quicker and easier to amputate the leg, they looked at him with... respect. Yes, it was respect. The doctors had taken an interest in him then, taught him things.
A few days later when the young soldier was awake and knew where he was, he asked for the man who had saved him. When he saw Nathan, he had embraced him; had thanked him for saving his life and his leg. After that Nathan had never questioned the choice he had made, and had never gone back on his private oath, to never use his healing skills to do harm.
Unlike that man, there was nothing to be done for this one. Nathan located a flask of water and wet a cloth to lay over the man's forehead. That was all he could do.
Finally, he made his way back to Ezra. He washed the graze on his head with a little whiskey, and debated whether or not to bandage it again. That caused him to wonder what he could use for bandages. His shirt was in tatters, Ezra's was soaked in blood, and so were the shirts on the three dead men with them. Not that the idea of using their clothing to bind Ezra up had appealed anyway. Nathan decided to leave the head wound be, and, searching Ezra's pockets, found two clean handkerchiefs which together should wrap his shoulder. He rolled Ezra onto his side so that he could undo the buttons of his shirt.
As Nathan tried to get the shirt off, Ezra's eyes opened once more, and he struggled weakly in Nathan's grip. "Don't," he pleaded. His voice now sounded very young.
"It's alright Ezra. You just got hurt and I want to make sure you're going to be okay." Nathan tried to reassure him, but Ezra didn't seem to hear.
"Please don't. Don't. I don't want you to..."
"Ain't gonna hurt ya or nothing Ezra, just want to take care of you." Nathan became worried as his friend's struggles became more frantic. Each time he woke up, Ezra seemed to be getting younger and younger. What would become of him if the damage were permanent? And, more pertinent right now, why was Ezra fighting so hard to get away from him? What memory was he reliving?
Nathan continued to fuss with the shirt. Perhaps he should give Ezra a minute to calm down, but he was worried what his friend would do to himself if he backed away. And Ezra's injuries had gone untreated for too long already. He had the buttons undone and was trying to ease the shirt over Ezra's shoulder, the one he'd been shot in. Ezra abruptly stopped struggling but held himself tense, breathing rapidly.
"I can earn my keep, I promise," Ezra said, the words rushed and breathless. "Please, I promise I will, but I don't want to do... that. Please don't make me."
Nathan's hands froze of their own accord, and it took him a long moment to realise that Ezra had stopped moving too, slipping back into unconsciousness. He pulled the shirt clear as gently as he could and tossed the blood soaked cloth a few feet away. He quickly lit a fire and set some water to boil, keeping his hands busy, concentrating on what he needed to do next. It was important. He couldn't think about anything else, couldn't let his mind wander. Think about only this.
He cleaned the shoulder wound, entry and exit points, thoroughly, and realised there was only a little whiskey left. He bandaged Ezra's shoulder tightly, satisfied when the bleeding slowed to almost nothing. He searched Andy's body and the kid's, and found another flask, half full. He rolled Ezra onto his stomach to check the bullet hole in his back. With some relief he decided that the bullet wouldn't need to be removed. He wasn't sure he could have managed it with only his left hand.
He set to cleaning the wound as carefully as he had the shoulder. Then he wadded up his handkerchief and pressed down, pleased to see that the wound wasn't bleeding much and looked clean.
For the first time, Nathan began to consider what to do beyond the next few minutes. What would happen to them now? They were stranded in the middle of nowhere. They had no supplies and their horses were who knew where. Ezra would need better shelter than a damp mineshaft if he was going to recover.
Nathan wondered what the time was. It looked to be midday, or slightly after. They wouldn't have reached Four Corners yet, even if they hadn't been interrupted. He snorted. Interrupted. Talk about understatement.
Nathan tried to picture where he and Ezra were, in relation to Four Corners. The trail they had been following was fairly straight in this area. The canyon, he knew, followed the same path as the trail for a little way... well, really the trail followed the canyon. Up ahead, the canyon would turn and cut across the trail. The canyon's sides sloped gently there to make it an easy climb, so the trail simply dropped down into the canyon and climbed up the other side. Nathan nodded, figuring that was his best bet. That would be the easiest place to get Ezra out of the canyon, and it would bring them closer to Four Corners. If they got started soon, they might even meet the other peacekeepers when they came looking.
The trouble with that plan, Nathan reflected, was that there was no way to get Ezra to that part of the canyon. He couldn't carry Ezra without making his injuries worse, and he didn't want to do that now that they didn't have to flee any more. He doubted he could carry Ezra far anyway, not with one arm. And there was nothing in this useless canyon he could build a travois out of. He could climb out of the canyon and look, but it might take a long time to find somewhere he could climb out with his injury, and he didn't want to leave Ezra for too long. What if he woke up, knowing where he was, knowing that he was alone, in the middle of nowhere? He couldn't risk it.
The only thing they could do, in fact, was sit right where they were, do nothing, and wait for help to come. More waiting. And they'd probably have to wait all night.
Nathan settled in, getting as comfortable as he could next to Ezra. He measured time by sips of water, waiting as long as he could stand before taking another tiny mouthful, and coaxing a trickle down Ezra's throat. The canteen was half empty, and he thought maybe three hours had passed, when he was startled by a familiar voice.
"Hey, pard, you been makin' some new friends?" The sound of Vin's voice, slight amusement almost concealing his concern, told Nathan that the burden of waiting, watching Ezra get weaker and weaker, had finally been lifted.
"Vin," he called, "You're early. Weren't expecting you 'till tomorrow."
"Probably would have been tomorrow, but when that ornery horse of Ezra's turned up in town by himself, we figured it weren't a good sign." Vin gave a small chuckle. "Damn horse stuck his head right in the door of the jail. Gave JD a hell of a fright. And we found your horse in town, too. Headed straight for the mercantile, we found the Potter kids feeding him peppermints. That's a horse knows what side his bread's buttered on."
"Oh, great. By the time we get back, he'll be as spoiled as Chaucer." The two of them laughed, and Nathan privately resolved to buy the two horses a stick, no, a whole sack, of peppermints, the moment he got back to town.
Vin, Buck and JD had wrapped up the bodies of the dead men, while Chris and Josiah helped Nathan get Ezra to the wagon. It was dark by the time they got back to Four Corners; they would have stopped for the night, but Nathan was worried about Ezra and wanted to get him to the security of the clinic, so they pressed on. Nathan cleaned Ezra's injuries and bandaged them properly, relieved that Ezra had finally been properly tended to. Josiah insisted on taking care of Nathan's hurt arm, silencing Nathan's protest with a glare before it began. Once all that was finished, Nathan even managed to fit in a few hours of sleep before sunrise.
Nathan was eating a small breakfast early the next morning, when he heard a weak voice coming from the bed in his clinic.
"Am I to surmise that our errand did not proceed as uneventfully as I had hoped?"
Nathan jumped up and hurried to stand by the bed, where he could see Ezra's eyes focused on him, a slight frown on his face.
"You with me?"
"Apparently so," Ezra replied, looking a little confused.
"How's your head feel?"
"I'm not surprised. We ran into some trouble on the way back from Eagle Bend, and a bullet grazed your skull. You were pretty confused for a while, I was worried. Mighty glad to see you awake and making sense. Mind if I look you over, see how you're doing?"
Nathan tested Ezra's vision and checked his injuries, until he was satisfied that Ezra was recovering perfectly well. He allowed Ezra to sit up in the bed and got his breakfast set up while explaining that he was going to be fine, and Ezra just raised a sceptical eyebrow at first, then curved his lips in a tiny smile.
"For how long will I have to remain under your care, Mr Jackson?" he asked, his tone suggesting that one day would be too long, which made Nathan bristle a little. He knew Ezra hated the fuss and inconvenience of being sick or injured, and it had nothing to do with Nathan personally, but it still got irritating sometimes. So his reply was maybe a bit brisker than it could have been.
"You've got two bullet holes in you, Ezra, and a pretty decent crease in your skull. If you're out of here within a week you can consider yourself damn lucky."
"Well," began Ezra, huffing a little, "I certainly hope it doesn't take that long. I can hardly earn my keep languishing in bed."
Nathan started a little at that, but he didn't think Ezra noticed. Ezra was too busy scowling at the beans and barely warm toast on his plate. He took a long sip from his cup and grimaced. Perhaps he hadn't realised that it was tea, not coffee. Nathan catalogued Ezra's behaviour in an absent way while he tried to find the right words to ask the question in his head.
"Ezra?" he asked, still not sure how to continue. Fortunately Ezra saved him from having to by asking; "So, what did happen out there?"
Nathan began to explain about leaving Eagle Bend, and the sudden attack, and how he'd realised that Ezra was no longer beside him, but was lying in the open, wounded and unconscious. He hesitated at that point, wondering how to explain to Ezra what had happened, how he'd let Ezra be hurt. He thought about lying but dismissed it straight away. It wasn't in him to be less than honest, and anyway, he was a fool if he thought he could deceive Ezra.
"I ran out and picked you up. Got you over my shoulder, but they were still shooting, and I guess one of them hit you in the back." He looked down at his hands, because he couldn't look at Ezra's face while he was saying this. "I didn't even realise you'd been hit until later."
Ezra didn't say anything for a long minute, and when Nathan finally looked up, Ezra was studying his own hands, an expression on his face like... confusion? Or wonder?
"You ran out and picked me up? While they were shooting at you?"
"Yeah, I guess... I guess I did."
Ezra looked at Nathan then, and smiled. "Thank you. Thank you, my friend."
Nathan wasn't sure what to say then, a little unsettled at having had all his doubts and guilt wiped away with a few simple words. So he just nodded in response, and sat by the bed, quietly, while Ezra continued to glower at his food, until he finally seemed to give up.
"What happened next?" Ezra asked, and it was only then that Nathan realised he hadn't finished explaining everything that had happened. He picked up from where he had picked Ezra up, and briefly described fleeing down the canyon, finding the abandoned mine, hiding in it, and eventually killing all their attackers. He shook his head in bewilderment.
"I don't understand why they didn't give up, after half of them were dead. Why did they keep coming back to be killed?"
"Perhaps they were madmen," Ezra suggested, although he didn't sound all that convinced. "Perhaps they thought one man couldn't possibly withstand all of them, burdened as he was by an injured compatriot, and perhaps they were driven to avenge their fallen brethren."
"Maybe," Nathan conceded. "But it seems pretty unlikely to me."
"Unlikely as it may be, I hope that is the case. The alternative is that they were part of some larger force, and dared not return with their assignment only half complete."
That was a possibility which hadn't occurred to Nathan, and it was a grim enough prospect to silence conversation for several long minutes. Finally Ezra pushed his breakfast tray aside, and gave Nathan an unreadable look.
"Mr Jackson, I believe you are indebted to me for the cost of eleven bullets."
"I- what? Eleven bullets? What the hell are you on about, Ez?"
"I am referring to your current state of indebtedness. When we left Eagle Bend, I had two guns and a derringer, all fully loaded. Now, I find my weaponry to be bereft of ammunition. According to your testimony, I used three rounds myself, so it can only follow that the remaining eleven were fired by you." Ezra settled himself more comfortably in Nathan's bed, adjusting the covers. "Don't concern yourself, Mr Jackson. I am not an unreasonable man. I will allow you one week in which to make appropriate compensation."
Ezra really was too good for his own good, Nathan reflected. No one who didn't know him well would recognise amusement or humour on his almost totally blank face. He wondered, not for the first time, how Ezra had managed to live so long when he was so damn infuriating.
"Appropriate compensation? I'll give you appropriate compensation! Hell, I'll give you your damn eleven bullets right now! Just tell me this." Nathan leaned over the bed, making full use of his imposing height. "You want 'em in the head or in the chest?"
Far from seeming threatened, Ezra gave a delighted chortle. So of course, Nathan had to hit him. He used a cushion, gently, in deference to Ezra's invalid state. No one could say he was the sort to menace the sick and injured. Besides, Ezra would be healed soon enough.
|On to: Such Glad Tidings|
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