The sky seemed to take on a life of its own that day as the rumbling gray clouds swept across the landscape. Ezra felt as though he could almost reach out and touch one of them if he tried. As it was, he tried to keep his mind off the impending weather and back on the task at hand: finding the wagon.
The day before, a young couple had set out of Four Corners with their child, a girl. Almost immediately, reports had come in from the telegraph office of a gang of outlaws headed their way, coming from the direction the couple was headed in. Friends of the people had thought it best that someone ride out with them, an extra gun if need be. Ezra had been given that job.
Chris Larabee hadn't put much stock in the settler's "peril", but in deference to the town's wishes, he had sent Ezra. That wasn't saying much about the danger he thought the people in, but he knew that Ezra could shoot straight if he had to. And besides, he needed the others in town.
So here it came to pass that Ezra was loping quickly across the broad, flat prairie to find the wagon. The wind had picked up, and he wrapped his green jacket a little tighter around his shoulders. His only real complain was, should it rain, his coat would be soaked.
He glanced nervously up at the still darkening sky and urged Chaucer into a steady gallop. The horse responded eagerly, seeming to sense apprehension in the movements made by the reins. He threw his head into the bit, and Ezra had to fight for control for a moment.
When he and Chaucer finally settled into a steady rhythm, his concentration was lost. So he almost didn't hear the faint scream that came from over in the dip between the next two hills. He pulled up, uncertain, thinking that it was just the wind, or a cougar out for a feast. But when the cry came again, louder, he yanked the horses' head around to the right and spurred him forward.
When he crested the hill, what he saw made his stomach turn. There, situated neatly between two boulders, was the wagon he'd been searching for. He turned his head, looking back at the main trail, gauging how far he was. It was a good quarter mile.
He grimaced. The wagon was upside down, a sure sign that it had been run off down the hill by something. And a quarter mile…It had to have been chased.
Knowing that it would be suicide to try to negotiate the rocks on horseback, he dismounted and looped the reins around two sizable rocks. He left Chaucer to the sparse grass growing at the edge and proceeded, lariat in hand, precariously down the hillside.
The voice had all but stopped, and only a slight hysterical sobbing was what he heard. "Hello?" he called out, hoping that the person was still coherent.
"Help me!" A woman's voice shrieked.
Quickly, he jumped the last few feet, landing neatly beside the wagon. "Where are you?" he called, trying to determine how to get to her.
"Over here!" She screamed again.
"That doesn't help," he muttered, but he tried to follow the sound of her voice. Rounding the other side of the wagon, he spotted an arm amidst the wrecked wood that was strewn there. He reached over and grasped her hand. He was relieved when she squeezed his in return.
"My baby!" she cried, starting to sob. "She's alive! You've got to find her first!"
"Ma'am," he said soothingly, "Let me get you out."
Knowing it would do no good to sit and listen to her cry in pain, he steeled himself and pulled. She didn't scream, but she let out a long-suffering moan that shook him. It told them both that she was dying.
He cradled her limp body in his arms. "What's your name?" he asked softly.
She gazed up at him, her blue eyes dark and glazed. "Nora," she whispered. "My baby," she croaked, trying to rise.
He held her down. "I'll find her," he whispered, looking at the wreck. "What's her name?"
"Leigh," she gasped. "I know she's alive. I heard her crying under there."
He looked. There was no movement or sound from the wagon. He didn't want to say it, but the child must be dead. "Nora," he began, "She's--,"
As if on cue, a tiny, terrified wail sounded from the wagon. Nora gasped. "That's her, that's my baby! Go get her, please!"
He nodded. "I will. Hold on, I'll get her." He set her down as gently as he could, removing his jacket and placing it over her, noting for the first time the bloodstains on her face and arms. Silently, he turned away, crawling towards the wagon.
At first glance, there seemed to be no way to get under it, really. Oh, there were a few places where the wood had come to rest on top of a rock, allowing a small hole here and there, but he wasn't small enough to fit through them. He rounded to the back of the wagon and saw that it had come to rest on top of a rock at least a foot in height.
"Maybe," he murmured, looking at his only option. He was pretty sure he could fit his head and shoulders under there, enough to let him feel around for anything alive. He scooted forward until he was at the opening and peered through.
At first, there didn't seem to be enough light to let him see anything inside, but a few moments of looking showed him a wreck. Blankets, pots, baskets, anything and every- thing was scattered haphazardly amongst the rocks. He sighed, pulling himself under it.
He got as far as he thought he could without getting stuck and started feeling around. At first, his hands only found broken shale and metal, but a moment later, they brushed soft cotton. The cotton moved.
Eagerly, he grasped it and inched backwards. The bundle kicked and the child began to scream. He received a foot in the nose before it was over, but it didn't matter. He had the child. She was alive.
Standing uneasily, wincing at bruises the shale had left on his hands and knees under the pants, he hurried over to Nora. "Nora!" he said, "I've got her."
She reached out weakly, and he set the child in her hands. She looked at him, the light fading from her eyes, and asked, "Will you take care of her for me?"
His mouth dropped open in shock. What was she asking? He abruptly closed his mouth and gazed uncertainly at the weakened, dying woman.
"Please?" she whispered, taking his hand in hers. She didn't wait for an answer. "I don't even know your name."
"Ezra Standish," he said tonelessly, taking the child quickly as her arms fell limp at her sides. He looked back at her, but her eyes were dull, and her chest did not rise, even barely. Wordlessly, he ran his hand over her face, closing her eyes.
He held the child in his arms as he stood, confused. He'd have to mark the place, to come back and bury the woman. A thought occurred to him. "Where's her husband?" He walked around to the front of the wagon, but he saw no one. Scanning the hillside also proved fruitless, as there was no body to be found.
"Well, Leigh," he said, "Let's go." Leigh swung her fist at him, but he jerked his head out of the way in time. She gazed at him with expressive blue eyes and he found it amazing to think that she wasn't harmed. Slowly and carefully, he began to climb the ridge back to Chaucer.
Nathan Jackson scanned the street worriedly, looking for any sign of Ezra. He'd been gone since sunrise that morning, all the good complaining had done. But here it was, after dark, and he still hadn't returned.
Sighing, he turned from the window, wincing as the thunder boomed loudly and the rain began to fall. It didn't start as a trickle, but was let loose with a feral intensity, driving men and women inside wherever they could seek shelter.
He turned and walked into the saloon, where he spotted his other five friends sitting aimlessly around Ezra's usual poker table, the one in the far back. They had a poker game going, but no one was really interested. None would have said it, but they were all upset that the sarcastic gambler wasn't back.
Chris glanced up as Nathan walked up. "See anything?"
Nathan shook his head. "I hope he finds shelter somewhere. At least he took a slicker with him. Should keep him protected."
Buck turned to Chris. "What if he found the family and decided to ride on out to their property with them?"
Vin shook his head. "He wouldn't have. You know Ezra. He'd just have made sure they were all right and headed back here. No use staying out in the desert when he didn't have to."
Much as they all hated to admit it, Vin was right. Ezra had no excuse for staying out. That fact only served to increase the tension in the room.
Nathan took an empty chair from a nearby table and swung it round to sit in. Chris dealt him a hand, and they resumed the game. It wasn't long before JD threw his down in enthusiastic disgust.
"Why can't we go looking for him?" he cried, his nerves on edge.
Chris looked up at him. There was no kind expression on his hard face, but there was no animosity either. "I wish we could, JD," he said, surprising them all. It was no secret that of all the seven, Chris and Ezra disliked each other the most.
"Why do you say that, Chris?" Josiah asked carefully.
Chris suddenly frowned, startling them again with a fierce snap. "Just because we didn't get along well doesn't mean I don't respect the man. He's one of us, and we SHOULD be out there looking for him, not sitting here twiddling our thumbs." With a sigh of disgust, he threw his cards in. "Fold."
Buck and Vin glanced at each other. Neither of them commented, but each knew what the other was thinking. Chris was a touchy man at the best of times, and downright trigger happy all the time. There was no telling when his mood might change. It was an unspoken agreement with the other five to just let him be.
The others played silently for a few minutes, refusing to get into the game. Each one glanced at the doors every few seconds, hoping to see a wet, upset southerner come stalking through them. The rational part of their minds kept trying to tell them that it was hopeless, but the other part kept them wishing.
Suddenly, a yell from a table by the window startled them all. "Here comes someone!" a man yelled, pointing furiously out the window.
Six chairs scraped back and the men made an almost mad dash toward the doors. What they saw shocked them, to say the least.
"What's he doing, riding without a slicker?" Nathan yelled, running into the street.
The others watched as Ezra pulled Chaucer up to the saloon and stay, waiting a moment. His green coat was drenched, and his hair was slicked back with water. But what they saw next confused them even more.
"Why's his slicker in front of him instead of on him?" JD asked.
The answer came a moment later when Ezra handed the slicker to Nathan, who took it with extreme care. He didn't bother to stay and help Ezra, who dismounted. He waved to JD, who ran out, giving Nathan a funny look.
"JD, please take Chaucer to the livery," he said, teeth chattering. "I don't feel up to it." It was a front and they both knew it. Ezra looked on the verge of collapse, trembling in the street. JD nodded and ran with the horse to the big barn.
Ezra didn't bother to watch, just staggered, freezing, up the steps into the saloon. Josiah ran inside and brought a blanket from behind the bar counter, not listening to Earl's protests. They all made way for him as he reached Ezra who had stripped himself of his jacket, shirt, guns and boots, and was sitting in a chair.
"You okay, Ezra?" Chris asked, concerned.
He didn't answer, just jerked his head out the door. "Where did Nathan go?" he asked.
"Probably to his place. Why? What did you give him?" Chris frowned, but it was a worried frown, not an angry one. He was shaken. Ezra was trembling violently from the cold rain that had pounded on him. "Dammit, Ezra, go upstairs and lie down before you freeze!"
Ezra didn't bother to argue with him. He stood, wobbled, and promptly collapsed into a heap on the floor.
"Ezra!" Josiah yelled. "Buck, help me with him." Buck joined him instantly, grabbing him by the shoulders while Josiah picked up his feet. "Vin, go open the door to his room."
"What if it's locked?"
"Kick it open," Chris responded, snapping. Vin ran ahead of Buck and Josiah, who weren't really having much trouble carrying Ezra upstairs. He turned the knob of the door when he reached the room, and found it unlocked. With some relief, he opened it, glad that he didn't have to destroy property today, and stepped into the room, allowing Josiah through the doorway.
"Come downstairs once you get him settled," Chris said.
"Okay, pard," Buck responded, helping Josiah set Ezra down on the bed.
"What the hell do you mean?" Chris asked Nathan very calmly as he gazed at the small child before him.
Nathan just managed to avoid rolling his eyes. "He brought back the baby. Didn't tell me if the folks are all right, just handed her here. That's all." Miffed, he turned back to drying the dark brown curls that graced the girl's head so she wouldn't catch cold.
Chris took and deep breath and let it out. Now here was a problem. None of the men, save perhaps himself, that he knew of, was capable of caring for a small child. That left only one person he felt comfortable in transferring the situation to.
"Nathan?" he asked.
"Hmm?" the healer replied absently, concentrating on the girl.
"Why, I suppose she's at the paper. Hasn't gone out today as I know of." He looked up, comprehension dawning. "Now, wait a minute!" he burst out. "You can't just give up this little girl to Missus Travis! She don't have time. It's not fair!"
Chris merely lifted an eyebrow. "Watch me. Besides, who else do you know who can take care of a child?"
"Missus Potter," Nathan began, unsure.
"Who is still in the throes of grieving for her husband. No," Chris said, "We'll take her to Mary."
Sighing, Nathan wrapped the child carefully in a dry blanket, pulled a slicker over his head, and followed Chris out into the rain.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Jackson," Mary began. "What brings you here on a day like this?"
Nathan obligingly took his hat off his head, still keeping a firm hold on the bundle in his arms. "Well, Miz Travis," he said, "We have a little problem we thought you might be able to help us with."
Mary leaned around the counter she was working at to study the blanket in his arms. "May I assume it has something to do with whatever you're holding?"
Chris nodded. "Show her," he said quietly, commanding. Nathan carefully sat the blanket on a cushioned chair and withdrew the blanket a bit, revealing the bright blue eyes of a very awake baby.
"Oh!" Mary exclaimed, rushing forward to the child. She picked her up gently and held her carefully to her, studying the blue eyes for herself. "Where did you find her?"
Chris and Nathan exchanged a glance. "Well, Ezra did, ma'am," Chris responded, uncomfortable in explaining the situation. He knew as much as Nathan did, and that wasn't much at all.
"Go on," she said, perplexed.
Nathan shook his head. "He came riding into town about a half-hour ago, soaking wet and freezing with this baby wrapped up in his slicker. Chris said he collapsed and is resting in his room, so that's all we know right now." He paused. "We think it's the baby of that couple he went to look after."
Mary gasped. "The Wilsons, of course!" She examined the child a bit more closely and nodded. "Yes, this is definitely her." She glanced up. "I suppose you want me to look after her until other arrangements can be made," she said finally.
Chris nodded. "That was the idea, yes."
Mary shrugged. "I guess I don't have a choice. I'll do it." She looked up at him. "But you get that story from Mr. Standish as soon as he wakes up, you hear me? We're got to know what happened to the Wilsons."
Chris nodded. Deftly, he turned on his heel and strode out the door, Nathan only a few steps behind him. Onto the saloon.
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