by Heather F.
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.
Standish picked up his pace, his breath crystallizing on the air. His normally cleaned pants and tailored jacket were dusty, wrinkled and mud covered. His black squat hat had seen better days its original midnight black hidden under a sheen of grit. He practically jogged down the dirt road as he impatiently made his way toward the boarding house. He skipped the middle step as he bounded up the three steps onto the planked boardwalk and brusquely pushed his way through the wooden door. The door slammed behind him causing the glass window to rattle and the small bordering curtains to billow. The large entrance room was warm and dry, a sharp contrast to the cold grey day outside. He heard voices in the sitting room, it sounded like a nest of women, normally he would gladly engage in conversation but he was very cold and... a sweet smell wafted out from the kitchen... hungry. He slipped quickly through the long swinging door into the kitchen. He was hit by a wall of heat but more importantly there sitting on the counters were pies, lots of pies. Steam rose from some of them, they sat like a mirage, their aroma intoxicating. Ezra, uncharacteristically, grabbed a spoon and without preamble, dug into the pies. He started with a scoop of blueberry. His stomach growled, his hand trembled as he greedily shoveled another spoonful of blueberry pie into his watering mouth. A steaming apple pie sat beside it. Brown and granulated sugar graced the undulating golden crust, Standish unceremoniously dug into the middle of it next.
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat outside the saloon on a couple of chairs on the boardwalk. They were playing a friendly game of cards. Larabee spied the gambler coming down the street, "Hey there's Ezra now." He indicated with his head, to the tracker. Vin turned and watched the conman skip up the stairs and enter the boarding house. "He looks like he had a rough trip. I wonder where his boots and horse are?" Tanner pointed out. Larabee slowly hauled his lanky form to his feet, "Lets find out what happened." Together the two men casually made their way across the street. Larabee and Tanner stood approximately the same height, just shy of six feet. Both had the same streamlined athletic build, formed out of hard physical work. Chris, a rancher turned gunfighter, wore mostly black, his face hardened by his past tragedies his blue eyes rarely betraying emotions. He wore his dark blond hair short, economical, under a black low crowned hat. Tanner matched his friend's physique. His hair brown hair, however, fell in curly waves around his shoulders. He wore leather, a tracker by trade, turned bounty hunter but now had a bounty on his own head. The pair moved as one up the steps to the boardwalk.
They entered the boarding house through the same door as the conman. Tanner quickly peeked into the sitting area tipped his brown leather hat to the ladies and politely ducked out, "not in there." Larabee and he then checked the kitchen. They found Standish. Ezra was so concentrated on the bounty of food in front of him that he did not notice the two men, until they spoke. "You might want to chew some of that before you swallow." At the sound of Larabee's chuckling voice, Ezra jumped back gagging on a mouth full pumpkin pie. His green eyes grew wide as he slowly chewed the large morsel of food in his mouth. He appeared terrified. Gee thought, Vin, they should not have scared him that bad. Then a woman's scream behind Larabee and Tanner caused the two men to twirl around and face the head of women's auxiliary, Mary Travis. "What have you done!?" Women flooded into the kitchen, Ezra backed up slowly quickly surveying for an easy escape. There was none. Mary and the other women, eight in all, saw the damage to the pies and the gambler with his mouth full. He held the proverbial smoking gun. Larabee and Tanner saw their friend's life in danger, as well as their own, guilty by association, and backed up as well. "Look what you have done." Mary Travis sputtered as she and her group plowed into the room scanning the irreparable damage to their creations. Ezra choked down the last of the pie trying very hard to work saliva back into his mouth and wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. "These pies were a part of contest, you have ruined it." Travis hissed out backed by an angry mob of women. Standish peered over Larabee's and Tanner's shoulders taking quick stock in what he faced. He put on his best smile straightened out his clothes and started, "Now, now, now ladies, all is not lost." A friendly dimpled smile spread across his unwashed face and he shouldered passed his two taller companions, with his hands raised to elbow level in a simple calming gesture, his soothing southern drawl a stark contrast to how he felt.
"How can you possibly say that?" Mary asked not easily dissuaded by the gambler. "Well for starters Ms. Travis the blueberry pie, must have been made by..." he scanned the gathering of women and smiled reaching gently for, "Mrs. O'Rourke." She smiled, pleased as he brought her to the head of the group. "Its texture was perfect. That had to be the best blueberry pie I have ever had the pleasure of indulging in." He nodded his thanks to the small Irish woman causing her to gleam. "The pumpkin, on the other hand could only be Mrs. Cunningham's," Ezra turned toward the young Scots woman, "the cinnamon and butter were not at all too heavy but just enough to accentuate the pumpkin. A pie to be proud of." Next he held the hand of a petite delicate lady with light brown flowing hair, "And the peach cobbler Mrs. Fleming is not something you should hide. That cobbler would do anyone proud." He placed his arm brotherly around her shoulders and gave her a kind squeeze whispering, "You should not be so timid you are a wonderful cook."
Larabee and Tanner watched Standish squirm his way gracefully out of another tight situation. It amazed Vin that Ezra could sweet-talk someone so convincingly while emptying their pockets. Larabee was surprised that Standish had not yet been killed by a victim of a con. Both men stood quietly, however, appreciating Ezra's unique gift. Within a few minutes he had not only defused the potentially dangerous situation but somehow managed to turn himself into a pie connoisseur, matching each woman with her pie and complimenting her ability lavishly but not too heavily, keeping himself sincere.
Ezra found himself in the center of the women's group discussing the culinary tidbits of pie making, and gracefully started making his departure. Tanner and Larabee quickly slid in and started to guide their friend out between them toward the door. "Mr. Standish, what about my pie?" Mary Travis challenged as she watched the three men head toward the door. Chris chuckled when he heard a muttered curse escape Standish. The smile was soon on his face and he turned and faced Mrs. Travis, "Yours was the meat pie, I presume." She simply nodded. Vin noted it was the only pie left untouched, and from the looks of it he would not want a piece of it either. Ezra stepped forward, "I am regretfully sated and do not think I could force another bite down." He held his hands palm up at his sides in apology. Tactful, Vin thought. Mrs. Travis would not be so easily persuaded. "Surely Mr. Standish you could have just one taste." She offered him a spoon. Chris was forced to look at his boots to hide his smirk. Ezra stepped forward and took the spoon, he gazed over his shoulder at his two companions searching for help. He found none. Standish resigned to what he had to do, stepped up and took a spoonful of the meat pie. He closed his eyes and tasted the pie. He hung his head for a moment, Vin could not figure out if Ezra was concentrating on tasting the ingredients or using all his willpower to swallow. Finally he gazed up at the group and smiled, "Excellent, the best meat pie I have ever encountered and will probably never have the pleasure of enjoying again." He smiled graciously taking Mary's hands in his and kissing the back of it. He straightened up and smiled at the group, "Thank you ladies for the pleasant visit." before he could say more the gunslinger and tracker forced him out the kitchen door.
No one spoke until they were outside, at which time Standish began spitting trying to desperately to work an unfavorable taste from his mouth. "Not very good huh?" Larabee asked. Ezra hacked again and simply stated, "Deplorable." They entered the saloon and found Josiah, Buck, Nate and JD sitting at a table sharing a bottle of whiskey. The three men joined them pulling over chairs.
"What did you find out?" Sanchez asked pouring the gambler a drink and sliding it toward him. Ezra sighed, "Not much, no one down there ever heard of Top hat Bob, nor his group of men, and there was no evidence that they had been down there." Standish noticed Buck Wilmington's coat draped over the back of Buck's wooden chair, "You mind if I borrow your coat?" The gunslinger looked up surprised but shook his head, leaning forward and reaching back behind himself he handed the lined jacket to the gambler. "Thanks," Ezra muttered gratefully as he shrugged on the coat. Larabee sighed angrily, another dead lead. It seemed they hunted a mythical character. "There must have been a good saloon down there." Buck pointed out slyly, watching the gambler pull the sleeves of the over sized coat back off his hands, "we were getting worried and afraid we might have to ride out after of you." Standish smiled not looking up, "That one horse town did not even have decent bottle of whiskey." The conman uttered disgustedly. JD gazed over at the gambler, "Then what took you so long?" Ezra threw back his whiskey and refilled his glass stifling a yawn. Before he could answer Vin added, "and where's your borrowed horse and boots?" Standish quickly polished off the shot and began pouring a third and paused, thinking, then finished filling the glass. Leaning back in his chair tracing his fingertips around the lip of the short glass he sighed gazing around the table at the expectant faces, "Ahh hell." He rubbed his face tiredly with both hands, gazed down at the floor and then at the waiting group of men. "Three nights ago I had a run in with a bear." He stated simply. Vin looked at him questionably, "A black bear?" Standish shook his head in exasperation, "No not a black bear..." he stopped himself controlling his anger, he was tired and threw back yet another shot of whiskey, and more calmly continued, "not a black bear a good sized grizzly I would like to think." He refilled another shot, the fiery liquid began to glow through his blood stream he could feel his face go flush. He had been chilled for so long that the artificial warmth created by the alcohol not only felt good but made him drowsy. "Three nights ago? you've been walking for the past three days?" Wilmington asked incredulously.
Standish chuckled quietly to himself, feeling the effects of the whiskey and looked up, "Well I might have hurried along a little faster on the first night." This broke the table up into uproarious laughter. Then JD asked a little sheepishly, "Do you have my new boots?" Standish stared at the young man a sarcastic laugh escaped between a humorless smile, "My, my well you know, JD, I politely tried to persuade him while he ate my horse if he could please at least leave me your new boots, knowing how important they were to you." Ezra spread his arms in mock sympathy, "but he failed to considered my request. I am sorry to say I did not press the point, especially after he made it a point to devour one of mine." Standish swallowed down another shot as Wilmington pushed JD on the upper arm in disgust. "Did you get a shot in, at least?" Nate asked. Standish merely shook his head no and then added, "He ate my gun too." This again created laughter around the room. Ezra drank another shot, placing his glass back on the table and again rubbed his face tiredly leaning back in his chair rubbing his eyes, stifling yet another yawn. He burped silently grimacing and patted his chest with a closed fist, "Gawd that pie appreciated me less than I did it." He groaned softly again rubbing his quads absently. He tried to spread his arms out and stretch, pain crossed his face and he grunted, quickly stopping the action and leaned forward hastily. "You alright Ezra?" Nathan asked. Standish merely waved him off, "Yeah just tired." The gambler pushed himself away from the table and carefully stood up. "If you gentleman don't mind I will take my leave and get some much needed rest." With that Ezra hauled himself to his feet, the long coat sleeves falling over his hands. He headed across the saloon, using assorted tables and chairs to keep his balance, and up the stairs to the small room he called home. Jackson watched him go, "I don't think he escaped his encounter with the bear unscathed." he observed out loud. "Nope that it doesn't," Sanchez agreed. Neither made a move, it would be easier to work on him when he was under the heavy dregs of whiskey-induced sleep.
Vin addressed the others in the group, "If there's a bear in the area we should track it down before someone is not as lucky as Ezra." The others nodded in agreement. "Where'd he get the pie?" Buck asked interested. If there was pie to be had he wanted some of it. Vin and Chris laughed out loud. "We miss something?" Josiah inquired. Tanner still smiling nodded ‘yes', "He ate the centers out of the pies at the pie contest across at the boarding house." The others started laughing and Buck added, "and he got out of there alive?"
"Heck they were going to award ribbons based on his observations." Chris pointed out, "I did not know he was so informed on the mysteries of baking."
"Aww hell how did he match which pie went with which lady?" Tanner injected. This again received chuckles and laughter.
Josiah and Nathan slowly cracked the plain wooden door of Ezra's room. Jackson peeked around the door frame stared past the lamp on the night stand and saw the gambler, "Ezra?" He asked softly. He got no response so he opened the door a little further and tentatively stepped across the threshold. "Ezra?" He asked again a little more loudly, still no response. He and Sanchez entered the room and quietly closed the door.
"Well he's sleeping pretty good." Jackson observed as he crossed the wood planked floor and lifted one of Standish's eyelids. Josiah merely nodded. Standish slept on his stomach, diagonally across the bed on top of the colored printed quilt. He was still dressed, minus the hat. Together the two men rolled the conman onto his back and proceeded to remove Buck's coat and Ezra's shirt, the gambler did not offer much resistance. "Nate." Josiah said, peering up from Ezra's right side. Jackson had been running his hands over Standish's head feeling for bumps and abrasions, he found none. Nathan gazed up at the ex-preacher, apparently he did find something. Jackson shuffled down the side of the bed and inspected what Josiah had discovered. A large purple bruise covered the bottom 1/4 of his ribcage. Nathan palpated the area tenderly at first and then with more pressure, this elicited a groan from the gambler. "Easy Ezra, you're gonna be ok." Jackson soothed and looked up at Sanchez, "couple of cracked ribs, maybe, could be broken but I don't think so he moved too good for that." They finished removing the rest of his clothing, his right leg from the knee to ankle also sported a large deep bruise, and a few light wide spread lacerations. "Looks like his bear tried to remove more than just his boot." Sanchez pointed out quietly. Jackson silently agreed. Finding no other abrasions or wounds they pulled the quilt out from underneath him and placed it over his sleeping form. Content that their friend slept comfortably under the thick blanket, the two men joined their companions downstairs.
Ezra blinked a few times, the first thing he noticed as his consciousness dragged itself out from a heavy sleep, he felt warm. Comfortably warm, he then discovered he slept on his side on a soft mattress. The room glowed with soft light from a mid morning sun. He worked his mouth, swallowing and licking his lips. It felt as if lead ran through his veins, his extremities did not respond readily to command, he really was not concerned. Ezra stared at the furnishing he could see and realized that he slept in his own room. The events of last afternoon came back to him he smiled softly to himself, he made it home alive at least. He rolled over onto his back, his right side burned in fiery protest, causing him to grimace and clutch his side. He swore quietly to himself lying on his back staring up at the ceiling. It seemed as if all his muscles ached and burned, it was easier to just lie still. His stomach growled, he absently rubbed his belly it was tight with hunger. Ezra lay still for a moment longer enjoying the comfort and security of his room before pushing himself to his elbows to get up and get dressed.
"Well speak of the devil, look who's coming now." Buck Wilmington said the group as he watched the gambler make his way carefully down the stairs to the saloon. "He's moving kind of gingerly, don't you think?" Sanchez observed quietly to the others. Indeed Ezra moved carefully trying very hard not to disturb his right side and leg muscles. "Well if you walked as far as he did I bet you'd be stiff too." Tanner pointed out casually. "Hey Ezra you found some boots." JD piped up. Standish smiled patiently taking a seat at the large round table. A plate of biscuits sat in the center he reached for one as he sat, "They are an old but reliable pair."
"We're going to track down your bear, you coming?" Wilmington asked.
"Nope." It was a simple clipped answer that should have left no room for argument. Standish did not look up as he spooned jam onto the biscuit. The others exchanged worried glances. "Well it would make it easier if you could show us where you ran into it." Nathan added cautiously. Standish took a bite of his biscuit, drank some coffee wiped his mouth with a napkin and looked up at the others. "Mr. Tanner I was under the impression you are a tracker." Vin merely nodded knowing full well where Ezra was going. "Then may I suggest that you do just that."
"Oh come on Ezra," Buck said good-naturedly "why not help out. You're not frightened are you?" Wilmington mocked half-heartedly. Standish chuckled and looked up at the gunslinger, "Besides the fact I don't have a horse, a saddle or a rifle for that matter," he paused the smile quickly disappeared and no humor laced his voice, "yes Mr. Wilmington I have a very strong respect for the creature. And have no intentions to court danger again."
"Ahh hell Ezra we'll all be there what's there to be afraid of," J.D intoned with the bravados of youth. He only managed to anger the gambler more, and annoy the others as youthful brashfulness normally does.
Standish laughed reaching for another biscuit, he felt famished it had been an extremely long time since he sat down and had a hot meal. "Good then you just busy yourself and run right out there and wrestle your boots back from him." The gambler stated nonchalantly. Larabee breezed into the room from the front door with the brisk coolness of the morning air close behind him. "Good you're up," he said his gaze gliding over the gambler, "alright lets go." He turned on his heels and headed back to the front door, his black over coat billowing behind him. "I'm not going." Standish replied. Chris had the door partly opened and peered back over his shoulders, his blue eyes like ice, "Yes you are." With that he slid out the door.
"No I'm not." Standish uttered in frustration. Nathan pushed JD up and out the door and left Josiah, Buck and Vin to deal with the resistant conman. "I do not have a horse." He pointed out to no one in particular.
"We've got one for you," Tanner intoned. Standish put down his biscuit and stared up at the three remaining men
"Saddle?" They nodded hauling him to his feet and steered him toward the door. "Taken care of." Buck answered.
"I can't go because I don't have a rifle." It was a last ditch effort which did not work, "My Ezra it sounds as if you're whining, of course you have a rifle. Taken care of." Josiah added, forcing the smaller gambler out the door.
They rode the full day into early evening, when they decided to stop for the evening. It proved to be a brisk early fall day, the wind had a bite to it leaving cheeks and noses pink. Tanner had tracked them up to Standish's first night's camp since he had run into the bear. They had passed the remains of his second camp night earlier in the afternoon, he had made good time for an individual who was accustom to horseback. Vin even said so, Ezra's only response, "I had incentive."
JD sat on the ground checking the mechanism of his revolver, "Well don't worry Ezra we'll take care of this bear for you."
Standish, a professional gambler by trade, offered no show of emotion, and bit back his anger, JD still had a lot to learn. Buck, not so forgiving, strode past and slapped the younger man off the back of his head knocking his bowler off. JD looked up shock, "What?!" he implored to Wilmington's back as the large gunslinger strode past. Standish turned back and continued unsaddling his horse a gratified smile crossed his clean-shaven cheeks.
The next morning they started out at a leisurely pace. As the day wore on Josiah noticed that Standish became increasingly withdrawn and nervous, continuously glancing about, his hand resting on the butt of his rifle. "We must be getting close." Buck whispered to Jackson, he too noticed to drastic sober change in the conman. Vin confirmed it when he led them directly to the remains of Standish's quarter horse. Tanner dismounted his paint gelding and examined the half buried remains of the animal, as everyone else pulled rifles and removed the safeties. When he finished he let out a whistle and looked up at the gambler in amazement, "Geez Ezra you know how to pick 'em." He toed around, what little was left of the carcass "What do you think Vin?" Larabee asked from the back of his dark bay. The tracker did not answer right away but gazed around at the ground with a critical eye. He then turned around and looked up at the group, "Well he has not been back to feed on it for awhile, but he's big, judging from the size of the prints and impressions." He paused swinging back up on his horse, "If we run into him we're going to have our work cut out for us." He met Standish's deep green eyes, "You're luck to be alive." Standish's only response came as a chuckle. Luck played a big role, he did not like to depend on it for much but it felt good to have an ace up your sleeve. Buck rode passed the gambler and gave him a congratulatory slap on the shoulder.
They rode for another hour, making camp in a clearing along a steep slope. A rocky bed river meandered at the base of the slope. The sun had begun to set casting long shadows on the ground. Josiah built a fire and stirred beans and bacon in a pot. Standish hovered near the fire the Winchester repeating rifle laying close at hand, flipping cards over and between skilled fingers. The others laid their sleeping gear around the fire picking up their plates and waited patiently as the large preacher scooped dinner onto their plates. "Hey Ezra you eating?" Sanchez asked as he filled his own plate. The conman appeared to think about it for a moment turning an ace of diamonds around his ring finger, "No thank you, not very hungry." Sanchez did not push it.
The half moon hung low in the night, stars spread across the sky like sand on a beach. Ezra lay on his back staring up at them thinking about how much he missed the safety of his own bed back at the saloon. He listened half-heartedly as Buck and Josiah picked on J.D and Chris laughed softly in the back round. The horses suddenly became restless, stomping their feet and blowing air. Ezra as well as the others jumped up and grabbed their rifles. The horses pulled back on the rumutea line. The men stared into the inky blackness trying to penetrate the thick curtain of night. They could not see what the horses clearly sensed. JD's chestnut gelding pulled free of its tether and made to bolt. The young sheriff spotted this and ran for his horse. Whether Ezra saw what frightened the horses or if the same gut feeling he relied on for gambling pushed him into acting, no one knows for sure not even Standish, if one were to ask him, but something tipped his hand and he sprinted after his young friend screaming, "Noo!" He heard Tanner yell, "JD watch it!" The bear seemed to have materialized out of the blackness its silhouette metamorphosizing rapidly out of the night. It stood on its hind legs the young sheriff ran right toward it seeing only his horse. Standish quickly closed the gap gaining on the young man at an angle. The grizzly swung a massive arm at JD. It would have connected with the younger man's head killing him instantly, but Ezra hit the sheriff with a flying tackle. The clawed paw smashed into Standish's ribs the claws tearing easily through his coat, vest, shirt and flesh. The two men were smashed to the ground in a tangled heap both scrambling madly trying desperately to create distance between themselves and the bear. JD did not see the bear until it was to late and then Ezra careened into him from the side. The sheriff did not realize that Standish took part of the blow, but he knew something was wrong when they hit the ground. JD regained his feet quickly, and tugged furiously on the gambler's coat collar dragging his friend out of harms way. Neither man heard the repeated gunfire or shouts from the groups. Standish could not get both feet under him his left arm would not support weight. He did not hear the rifle shots, the howl of the bear, or JD screaming at him to get up. His ears rang to badly, the world spun, his legs and muscles worked on basic instinct to survive. Ezra clung to life with two hands, no one ever spoke of gambling in the afterlife, therefore he had to play as long as he could in this life. JD and he half pushed and half pulled each other over the embankment.
Josiah, Vin, Buck, Nate and Chris fired on the bear as it made a halfhearted attempt to pursue the two men down the embankment. The grizzly vanished melting quickly back into the forest as quickly and as silently as it had come. The four gunmen ran toward the rumutea line ready to fire again then Nate and Josiah headed for the slope JD and Ezra threw themselves over, while Chris, Buck and Vin tended to the horses and tried to find the grizzly.
Ezra felt the ground disappear out from underneath him the next thing he knew he was tumbling out of control head over heels, entangled with JD for the river. They came to a sudden bone-jarring stop at the bottom, Ezra found himself sandwiched between J.D and a boulder. JD's elbow effectively knocking the wind out of Standish. The young sheriff scrambled to his feet trying desperately to haul the larger man up. "Come on Ezra, come on!!" JD urged dragging the gambler a few inches. "wait JD wait a second." the conman rasped. The sheriff stopped pulling for a moment listening but it was difficult to hear anything over his own pounding pulse. Then he heard Josiah shouting for them. "JD? Ezra? are you alright?"
"Yeah." He shouted back and then turned and looked at Ezra, the gambler was slowly gaining his feet. "Ezra you alright?" JD asked helping him to his feet. Standish nodded, surprisingly he did not hurt yet but he knew it would come soon. Movement to his left grabbed his attention, he paused only for a second and swore. Grabbing JD by the shirt collar he pulled his friend down and toward the right screaming, "Run… JD Run!!!" JD hesitated only for a moment, the fear and urgency in the conman's voice could not galvanize him into action. He did not need to see the grizzly bearing down on them or hear Josiah and Nate shout at them to run. JD's terror paralyzed him for only a few short seconds. The lapse in time should have killed him, but again Standish acted uncharacteristically. He shoved the sheriff down and charged the bear, screaming and waving his arms furiously. (He has no recollection of what transpired.)
The bear stopped, confused, it had never encountered anything like this before. Josiah and Nate watched from above shocked, "What is he doing?" Jackson whispered quietly, they could not get a clear shot at the creature.
"Saving JD's life." Suddenly Ezra stopped as if his mind quickly realized what he had done, gone momentarily insane. Both he and the bear stared at each other separated only by 50 yards of moonlit riverbank. Nothing could be heard it was if the forest had gone silent holding its breath waiting to see what would happen next. The bear stood on its hind feet and let out a bone-chilling roar. Standish's only response, "oh, shit." and dove into the river. The gambler did not witness the events that transpired next, the current of the river thankfully pulled him under, out of reach of the massive swinging forelegs, and whisked him down stream. The grizzly would not be dissuaded so easily and lumbered after his river bound prey leaving JD unnoticed behind the boulder where Ezra had shoved him.
Josiah, Nate, Buck, Vin and Chris raced down the hill to the trembling JD "You alright pard'?" Tanner asked. JD merely nodded numbly, his legs and arms shook uncontrollably. "Which way did they go?" the tracker asked Sanchez pointed, "They went down stream." Vin, Buck and Chris headed down only a few hundred yards and came back, "We're gonna have to wait til morning it's too dark to see anything." Wilmington stated.
"We have to go after them!" J.D implored, still trembling and embarrassed by what he thought was cowardice. Nate seemed to understand how the young man felt and laid his hand brotherly on his friends shoulder, "It's not your fault, you can't outrun a grizzly no matter how fast you are, besides Ezra knew what to expect you didn't." He steered him up the hill and with the rest of the group headed back to camp, "besides I bet Ezra can be pretty resourceful that bear will have its hands full." J.D was not truly soothed but he did not argue and let himself be lead up to camp. The others were not sure they bought Nathan's confidence either, Standish was a conman and gambler not a mountain man.
Standish broke to the surface of the water gasping for breath. The water was freezing. He flared his arms for a second but his left arm cried out in protest. He fought to keep his chin above water leaning his head back. The current swept him into rocks and debris. How long he floated Standish was not sure but he began to shiver uncontrollably. It was time to try his luck on shore. Unable to see very far he blindly struck out and hoped he swam toward the nearest and safest shore. A gentle eddy deposited him next to old sun bleached logs and brush. Standish was too tired to go on and wiggled as far under the tangle of wood as he could and fell into a dead slumber.
The others at the camp had the horses saddled and ready as the sun broke over the horizon. The morning chill crystallized the horses' breath. The six men quickly dismantled camp and rode out, down the embankment toward the river. JD was especially hot to get moving, feeling responsible for the missing gambler. Nathan and the others left him alone with his thoughts. Chris reined his horse in between Buck's and Vin's, "What are the odds Ezra made it through the night?" Larabee gazed from one man to another, "It's an awful big griz with a bad temper" Tanner pointed out, not to mention the last thing they witnessed, was the gambler's suicide charge and equally questionable jump into the river. "You never know, he survived the first time, besides he's just been full of surprises this trip." Buck laughed. He would never have imagined Ezra charging a bear. That took guts, or no brain, either way it proved effective, JD survived. It seemed strange however, the conman would sacrifice himself for anyone. Josiah, Nate and J.D trailed behind, Sanchez gnawed on a corn ball, "Sure is a beautiful morning." he commented with partly full mouth. The sun climbed slowly over the treetops casting brilliant array of colors across the grey-clouded morning sky. "How can you eat and act like nothings wrong?" JD exclaimed exasperated. "Ezra could be hurt or dead for all we know." The preacher and Jackson exchanged glances and Nathan spoke up, "JD we won't know until we find him, so there is no sense brooding about what might be." The younger man dismissed the two older men and continued with his own tragic musings.
Standish woke up trembling and disoriented. His muscles were cramped from being curled tightly in the fetal position trying to keep warm. Sand clung to the side of his face and hands he wiped his mouth with his right hand depositing more sand in his mouth. The river roared somewhere behind him. Ezra raised his head and spit, it was then he noticed he lay under a bramble of twisted tree limbs and logs. He tried to straighten his legs, but the muscles burned and knotted. Standish laid quietly for a moment soaking up the pain and cold. His teeth chattered, making his pounding headache worse. His left shoulder and ribs seared with agony. He could not remember being this cold. Standish chuckled, well actually he could remember being just as cold, it was a long time ago and he promised himself he would never endure that kind of discomfort again, so much for promises. After a few minutes he pushed himself to his knees, sinking his forehead into the sand, trying to ride out the wave of nausea. A few minutes passed and he considered leaving his small den, it was then he remembered what brought him to this sorry state. He froze in momentary panic, he peered anxiously out between the tangled branches he carefully surveyed the area in 360 degrees no bear. He sighed, this caused him to wince, and delicately freed himself of the drift wood.
The sun felt good on his face. It offered small amount of warmth, but he was chilled to the bone. Standish took an unsteady step forward as he moved the kinks and aches slowly worked themselves out. He followed the riverbed upstream, figuring the others would be searching for him. He limped along for a while his left shoulder and left side persistently ached. He moved slowly his boots settling unevenly in the sand twisting and wearing on already tired calf muscles. As he trudged along, his muscles shivered, he found himself longing for the saloon, hot biscuits and a good bottle of whiskey. Gawd he hated being cold, having been raised in the Deep South he had been spared the chill of northern winters, or autumns for that matter. His clothes had begun to dry as the sun crept higher in the sky, adding some relief to his misery. Had it been another day or under different circumstances, it would have been a beautiful fall day, one which people made excuses to go out and enjoy. Today, however, the gambler only hoped to find his compatriots and make it back to the safety of the saloon, to a warm bath, hot meal, and a comfortable bed. Being outside was not his idea of a good time, especially with an over large grizzly bear lurking somewhere in the forest. He continued to pick his way up stream moving steadier with the passage of time. The threat of the bear passed with the passage of the sun into the sky.
It neared noon when Standish was brought out of his reverie. He thought he heard voices and looked up. There across the river rode his six partners. They were waving and pointing at him. Ezra could not remember being so relieved at seeing anyone before in his life. This dreadful day was finally coming to a close. He waved back with his right arm up over his head. A bright smile spread gratefully across his dimpled cheeks. There must be a God after all, he thought. Standish noticed however that Larabee, Tanner and the others were waving with to much jubilance, they were not the expressive kind. The gambler let his arm drop to his side and stared with more intensity at his friends. The roar of the river drowned out whatever they were shouting. He then noticed that they were not pointing exactly at him but more down stream behind him. A terrible dread filled the gambler, he whirled around and saw the 800 lbs, grizzly bearing down on him from the river. Terror gripped him like a living entity, his stomach knotted, his breath caught in his chest, he couldn't move. His feet felt like they were bogged down in mud, his shaking legs would not respond to the basic instinct to survive, he could not get himself to run. Instead he watched the massive creature bore down on him seemingly in slow motion. Even though the bear was well over 900 yards away Ezra could not help but notice how marvelous a killing machine it was or just how much water it displaced.
"What's he waiting for?" Buck asked frustrated, from this range they could not hope to hit the bear. "He's scared." JD stated with experience. Vin picked up his repeating rifle bringing it to his shoulder, Standish only stood only a few hundred yards across the river, he aimed and fired at the gambler.
The ground at Ezra's feet seemed to explode. He jumped back, his feet weren't paralyzed at all. He gazed across the river at his compatriots, they were waving at him frantically, run. Then Tanner shot another volley at him again exploding sand and small rock even closer to the conman. This produced the desired effect. Standish ran. He ran for all his worth into the forest, with the bear already in the river he would be swept right into the creature if were to use it as an escape again.
The six men watched as Standish finally dug in and sprinted into the waiting forest. They shouted and fired at the grizzly in hopes of distracting it, their efforts failed. The lumbering giant splashed through the shallows of the river heading up stream to its fleeing prey. Standish had a head start, but there never is such a thing as a good head start when one is on foot with no rifle and being chased by a grizzly. But he had a chance, and for anyone trying to survive, a chance was like an ace up the sleeve, you just had to be skilled on how to play it. Ezra was not mountain man, nor did he pretend to be, but he was a gambler and if anyone knew how to play an Ace it was Standish. So into the forest he ran, never peering back, never truly gauging just how close he was coming to a gruesome painful death. Across the river the six men spurred their horses onward trying desperately to find away across the river, hopefully in time, hoping against hope that the gambler played his hand well, and they would not spend the afternoon picking up his scattered remains.
Standish's body worked on basic survival instinct. Adrenaline poured through his bloodstream reaching major muscle groups, his eyes dilated with fear, allowing him to see distance. He leaped over fallen trees, rolled under windfalls. His heart pumped furiously his lungs sucked in air, his aches and cramps had quickly disappeared under the heavy endorphin load his body became flooded with as a result of his fear. He could not hear the grizzly behind him over the roar of his own pulse in his ears or the violent passage of air down to his lungs. He sprinted for his life, he ducked and jumped, rolled and scrambled using his ace for all it's worth. Deep in his gut, where dread sat like a physical thing, he knew he was loosing this gamble. He did not need to hear the bear gaining on him to know that the creature slowly methodically covered more ground than he ever could despite his best efforts. Even dealt a handicap Standish would not give up, the deck was stacked against him, but if you don't like the cards you're dealt, then change them. Ezra broke out into a clearing. He bolted to edge of the clearing. It was a plateau.
The plateau dropped vertical for approximately twenty rocky yards, then sloped sharply for another four hundred yards back to the riverbed. Standish jogged along the edge of the cliff frantically searching for an easier way down. None existed. He swore, not only did he hold a bum hand, every time he tried to change it his cards they became even worse. Things looked terrible. He ran back along the edge hoping he missed something, panic quickly bubbled up through the fear.
Below him across the riverbed the six men searched for a shallow to cross the river. "Hey there he is!" Nathan shouted to the others. They followed Jackson's gaze and watched as Ezra ran along the top the plateau seemingly searching for away down. They could see the forest behind him, so far he was alone. They too searched for an easier way down the slope but like the conman they could find none. Suddenly the bear broke the cover of the forest. Standish must have heard it, because he twirled around to face it. The six watched helplessly below.
Standish did not see the other six below him. He raced along the edge of the cliff like a cornered animal. Maybe the bear gave up the chase, maybe he didn't have to worry. Then a loud crashing confirmed his denials, no the bear had not given up, it broke through the woods onto the grassy clearing. Ezra did not freeze this time, he shook to badly, he skidded along the edge of the cliff constantly peering over his shoulder at the drop, it was suicide. The lumbering grizzly his head carried below the hump of his shoulders cautiously crossed the clearing toward his cornered prey. Standish danced back and forth trying to find away to turn this losing hand into something salvageable. The six men below watched helplessly, still searching for a shallow to traverse the river.
Ezra shuffled backward, the grizzly methodically closed the distance swinging its colossal head slowly side to side. As he got within a few yards the grizzly stood on its hind feet, roaring, forcing the gambler to gaze up at it. It's mouth opened large enough to fit a mans head inside. It roared again, the sound almost enough to turn the gamblers knees to water, but the urge to live was too strong. From below the gunmen watched as the bear approached the skittering conman on hind feet, roaring. Then it dropped to all four. This was it, they thought, Standish was a dead man. Ezra thought the same thing, and did the unthinkable. He charged toward the bear again. "He's insane." Josiah whispered. The ex-preacher had seen it before, some men unable to wait the inedible rush it. Standish must have fit that category. Ezra charged toward the bear screaming for all his worth, suddenly he changed direction and sprinted for the cliffs edge. He kicked off the ledge, just as the bear swiped for him removing his coat.
The six men watched fascinated as the gambler leaped from the cliff, the conman's red tailored coat ripped from his back entangled in the bears claws. Ezra hung suspended for a brief second in the air his legs still running. He fell those twenty yards and hit feet first onto the slope. His forward momentum catapulted him downward, he windmilled his arms trying desperately to maintain his balance, but his left arm refused to cooperate. His legs could not move fast enough to keep up with the pull of gravity and his own momentum and so it pushed him head over heels, over rocks and brush, down the slope back to the riverbed. This spurred the six men into action and again they searched for away across the river.
Standish's wild descent sent him careening back toward the river. He'd regain his feet only for a moment before his upper body curled over like a crashing wave and soon he'd find himself upside down and disoriented. He came to an abrupt stop on the rock beach. He lay on his back wondering if he had actually survived the fall or if he was experiencing hell. How long he lay on the rocky beach soaking up the pain, he was not sure. He could not help but notice, once the world stopped spinning, how a few soft white clouds could contrast so brilliantly with the deep autumn blue sky. He must have survived the fall, he mused, Hades had never been depicted as a nice fall day. After what seemed an eternity, Ezra tried to sit up. It seemed every muscle and bone cried out in protest. Standish relaxed the best he could, soaking up the pain. He rolled onto his stomach and then carefully pushed himself to his knees, using only his right arm, his left shoulder had finally given out on him. He made it a point not to look at it, he did not want to know how bad it might be injured. Once on his knees he surveyed his surroundings. The river raced past on his left and the slope stood to his right. He faced downstream. As he glanced downstream he could make out six riders. They appeared to be riding up on him fast. He did not bother to wave to them that he was ok, they'd figure it out soon enough.
Tanner and the others had finally found a place to cross. They raced back upstream, after witnessing the gambler's leap from the cliff edge the bear had disappeared. They rounded the river bend and spied Ezra kneeling on the rivers bank facing them. Unfortunately he had his back to the ever-approaching grizzly. From his posture, slumped forward on his knees, Ezra had no idea that the bear stalked him from upstream. At seeing this, the six spurred their mounts urgently forward. JD and Buck were screaming for the gambler to turn around, but he could not hear them over the roar of the river. Tanner and Larabee pulled their rifles from their scabbards, raising the weapons to their shoulders, as their horses galloped forward.
Standish's relieved smile slowly melted from his face as he began to make out that Larabee and Tanner held their rifles up, almost like they were ready to fire. He noticed Buck and JD pointing furiously at him and shouting. He listened intently it sound something like... ‘behind' or ‘bear' Whatever they were saying Ezra did not like their body language. He had a sinking feeling and turned his head and looked over his shoulder. What he saw nearly brought him to tears. Less than 50 yards away the grizzly closed on him. Ezra tried to stand, tried to get his feet under him instead he only managed to fall back on his butt. He backpedaled heels and palm trying to create as much distance as he could, he knew it was not enough. He had played his only ace and it only managed to buy him time, delay the inevitable. Still he would not give up could not give up, he would not fold his hand would not throw his cards on the table, and so he back peddled, it was not enough but it was all he could do.
The bear easily closed the distance to its prey. It stood on its hind feet towering over its elusive meal. It blocked the sun, all Ezra could see was brown fur, still he kept back pedaling but the bear stood over him their feet actually touching. Standish only hoped his death would come quick. The Bear roared, stepped back and then fell forward. Standish's screams were muffled by the bear's body.
Tanner and Larabee fired together. Both shots catching the creature in the chest. Either slug alone would have proved instantly deadly for the bear, for both ripped through the heart, turning the powerful organ to hamburger. The bear's roar chocked off as it fell forward burying the gambler under its dead weight. The six men reined their horses to an abrupt stop, quickly jumped off and raced for the grizzly. Ezra was not visible under the great carcass. Tanner and Buck gently kicked the creature testing it, satisfied it was dead they quickly rolled the carcass off their friend. Easier said than done.
Ezra felt the grizzly hit him, he felt like he was suffocating under its massive weight. Suddenly it was gone. His eyes must have been closed because soon something was grabbing for him. With the weight gone he fought again, striking out madly with both feet and right arm, if he was screaming he did not realize it.
When Nathan and Josiah grabbed Standish to pull him free of the bear his eyes were closed, they figured he was unconscious. When they began to haul him out they were surprised to find themselves with a full-fledged fight on their hands. Ezra screamed, his green eyes snapped open and he fought for all he was worth. Nathan and Josiah soon found themselves amidst flaring feet and hands. "Whoa hold on Ezra its us," Nathan shouted over Ezra's screams. Josiah grabbed the wildly tossing head by the chin and forced the gambler to look at him. "It's us you're ok." Standish had managed to grab Sanchez's ear fiercely, he held it now twisted in his grip, forcing Josiah to hold his own head in a crookedly cocked manner. Sanchez felt the grip loosen only slightly, as if he wanted to believe but could not quite trust it. "You can let go, Vin and Chris killed it," Nathan added moving to the side so the gambler could see the dead body for himself, " see, it's dead." He carefully pried Ezra's fingers from Josiah's ear freeing the giant man. "Thanks Nathan." Sanchez muttered rubbing his tender ear. Standish pulled himself up into a sitting position with a lot of help from Nathan, Josiah sat beside him. "You run pretty good." the preacher commented after a bit. Ezra tore his gaze from the carcass Tanner, Wilmington and Larabee had begun to dress out. He turned and faced the preacher, a fearful worried expression still graced his dirt crusted but very pale face, "I had a lot of incentive."
"yes you did." Josiah laughed, "Yes, you did." Nathan had gone back to his horse to get some of his medical supplies. The gamblers left shoulder and thorax were torn pretty good. Wounds from bears tended to fester, no one knew why but they did and left unattended simple scratches could become severely infected.
With Josiah and Nathan's help Ezra was able to slip out of the ragged remains of his dress shirt, he shook badly. He heard JD suck in his breath as he walked passed. It must not look pretty, Standish had no intentions of peering at the injuries. They hurt all by themselves he did not need to confirm his wounds by inspecting them. He winced every time Jackson touched his back and left ribcage. "He got you pretty good, but I don't think you broke any ribs." Jackson commented, "but you dislocated your shoulder again."
"Oh, just great." Standish responded despondently between shivers. He had done it once before, Nathan had fixed it easy enough but it hurt like hell, something he did not want to relive.
"We're going to have to put it back in." Jackson spoke carefully, fixing a dislocation was just as painful if not more so than the actual condition, mostly because when it happens the person is not expecting it, unlike when it's fixed.
"I'd rather not." Ezra quipped quietly.
"The longer we wait the harder it is to replace it, you know." Nathan pointed out needlessly. Standish's wounds already had infection started and a fever slowly boiled. The wounds needed good deep cleaning but Ezra resisted. He hurt and last few days had been rough on him, his body was exhausted and the terror was slow to release its grip. Nate was not sure how to proceed. Josiah seemed to read Jackson's mind and nodded to the knife-throwing healer that he would help. Jackson nodded quietly indicating that they should do the shoulder first. Standish had no idea what happened, but one moment he was sitting up and the next Josiah had him in a strangle hold with his legs wrapped around the gamblers midsection effectively trapping him, almost simultaneously Jackson grabbed his left arm and shoulder and expertly manipulated it back into place. Pain shot through Ezra's body, his scream was muffled somewhat by Sanchez's powerful forearm over his mouth. Josiah inhaled sharply as Standish reflexively chomped down on the preachers forearm. The humeral head grated back into place, with a lot of effort. Standish buried his head in Sanchez's arm enduring the pain with a guttural groan his body held in a tense curl his right hand clenching Josiah's upper arm fiercely. Buck cringed at the sound of the joint being forced back into place. "Ok. Ezra we're going to have to wrap this up, just hang in there." Jackson watched Ezra for a moment the gambler lay heavily into the preacher trying hard not to breathe hard. JD and Vin strode up behind the healer, "Hey Nate what's that?" J.D asked pointing at the white streaks on conman's flexed back, near the left side of the conman's thorax just caudal to his upper arm. Jackson peered at what the young man pointed to and then gazed up at the two men and mouthed, "bone." Tanner shook his head in dismay and JD turned pale. After twenty minutes Josiah and Nathan managed to tightly wrap the gambler's left arm to his body, and bandage the exposed ribs. Through it all Ezra bit his lip, hoping he would not vomit. The sun had begun to set and the night began to cool off. Josiah rested a massive hand on the back of Ezra's neck and began easing him back onto the bed roll that Buck had spread out behind him, "Ezra we're just gonna lay you back ok?" Nathan said as Standish gripped the healer's forearm tightly gently guiding himself back toward to the ground. Through the whole ordeal the gambler had not said much. It seemed as if he had resigned himself to whatever Nathan had in store for him. Ezra closed his eyes against the pain and held his breath letting it slowly as his head rested against his saddle. "Feel better?" Josiah inquired. Standish smiled sarcastically, "oh much better, thank you." His lack of enthusiasm matched his sarcasm. Josiah merely chuckled and watched as Ezra's green eyes fluttered closed.
Larabee, Tanner and JD finished skinning and dressing out the bear. They headed back into camp under the auspices of a grey dusk. Larabee poured himself a cup of hot coffee, his breath crystallizing in the air, "How is he?" He indicated with his chin to the apparently sleeping gambler. Nate gazed up at the gunslinger and then over at the sleeping gambler, "He's hurt pretty good. Josiah and I put his shoulder back, but his left side took a pretty severe beating." Chris took a seat on the ground and leaned back against his saddle. "He going to be able to travel?" Buck asked. Nate shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt it."
"It's going to rain tomorrow." Tanner said taking a seat next to Larabee.
"How do you know that? There is not a cloud in the sky." JD said in disbelief. Vin merely answered with a noncommittal shrug.
JD woke to the loud clash of thunder. The sun had not yet crested over the horizon but even when it did the thick cloud cover would obscure it. He swore the tracker had been right. The camp was already alive. The horses were saddled except for the sheriff's and the others finished up a breakfast of cornballs and hard tack. Standish lay curled on his right side muttering softly to himself. "Well rise and shine sunshine. You going to sleep all day?" Buck Wilmington strode passed the young sheriff kicking his blanketed feet. JD quickly jumped up wiping sleep from his brown eyes. JD stepped gingerly over the gambler who still slept restlessly. He sat beside Nathan and started pouring himself a cup of coffee. "We don't have time for that, we've got to get going before the rain hits." Tanner said, as if on cue thunder clapped and rolled across the darkened sky. The thunderstorm definitely headed in their direction. With a lot of encouragement Buck and Nate woke Ezra. He was disoriented, feverish and addressed them by unfamiliar names. Wilmington stared passed the curled gambler at the healer with raised eyebrows. Nathan merely shrugged. Together they hauled him to his feet, his knees bent unable to support weight. "Whoa, hold on there Pard' just give it a second." Buck said supporting Standish who slumped into him. "You in there buddy?" Wilmington asked waiting as the gambler gradually put more weight on his own wobbly legs. Ezra merely sighed, "doing just wonderful" Josiah slipped his large lined coat onto Standish as the gambler carefully tested his shaking legs. With a lot of help from Buck and Josiah, the conman managed to get on his horse. The others mounted horses Buck gathered up Standish's reins and ponied the gambler's chestnut quarter horse. If Standish were asked anything about the day he would say he remembered none of it and he would have been speaking the truth. The fever and exhaustion had exacted it's price the conman passed through the day in a haze of pain and shadows. He mumbled to himself occasionally waving his right hand as if in response to some unseen conversant.
Vin did not lead them back toward town, it would have been a two day ride, with the storm close on their heels they had to find shelter in short order. He brought them to a small homestead owned by an elderly couple he knew. It had already been raining on them for an hour before they pulled into the barnyard. Josiah had squashed his hat on Ezra's bobbing head in an attempt to keep the gambler somewhat dry. Vin and Chris trotted up to the front porch and wrapped on the well-made wooden door. An elderly gentleman opened the door, and if he were surprised to see the tracker on his doorstep he did not show it. "Hello Mr. Rueben." Tanner greeted with his hand out stretched. "Why hello Mr. Tanner come on in out of that rain." Stanley Rueben replied shaking the younger man's hand with surprising vigor. Chris Larabee stood quietly to one side and nodded politely to the elderly gentleman.
"Well actually Mr. Rueben a friend of mine has been hurt and..."
"Say no more please come in." Mr. Rueben said stepping aside allowing the tracker and Larabee to enter the small log home. He held the door open as Buck shuffled in carrying the gambler, like a child, in his arms Nate close behind him. Josiah and JD trailed in sometime later after tending to the horses.
Mrs. Rueben led Buck to the spare bedroom. "Oh the poor boy looks terrible." She whispered to no one in particular, "you boys get him settled in and I'll brew up some poultices and fresh bandages." With that the elderly lady disappeared from the room. Buck and Nate quickly stripped the mumbling gambler of his wet clothes and boots and nestled him under a thick hand quilted blanket. Mrs. Rueben returned as promised with steaming poultices and clean bandages. Buck and Nathan rolled Ezra onto his right side, burying half his face in a soft down pillow. With the quilt pulled back to his hip they set on removing the soaked bandages. Standish's muscles trembled with chills and he muttered incoherently, occasionally swiping half heartedly at Buck and Nate. Mrs. Rueben placed a cold compress on his burning forehead, "Easy young man, you're in good hands," and then turned her attention to the other two men. "If you need anything you just holler." with that she hurried from the room to see to her other guests. Ezra's green eyes roved wildly around the room raising his head and tossing back and forth on the pillow, fighting both fever and the administrations of the healer. Buck did his best to hold his friend still and help Nate, in the end both Buck and Nate were fighting for breath, and Standish wrestled quietly with fevered dreams.
The group sat in the small the living room drying out in front of the fire. The Ruebens, may have been elderly but not helpless. They moved with the assertiveness that frontier life breeds into its settlers. Feeble would not be a word used in the same sentence as Ruebens. The Vin Chris Josiah and J.D ate homemade bread and hot cider as they dried their stocking feet in front of the fire. After a few minutes JD dozed on the floor in front of the fire. Vin, having made introductions, settled quietly in a chair and watched jumping flames in the stone fire place as rain cascaded down on the shake roof. Occasionally thunder exploded outside followed quickly by flashes of lightening that would light the darkened day unusually bright. Nathan and Buck finally joined the group in front of the fire. "How is the poor boy?" Mrs. Rueben asked. Vin smiled, Tess Rueben considered anyone younger than herself just a child. The others looked at Jackson and Buck expectantly, "He's one sick pup." Wilmington offered biting into a hot biscuit. Nathan nodded in agreement, "He's got one heck of a fever, the wounds are still festering and the chill he got from the rain certainly has not done him any good." Jackson settled down on the floor next to the sleeping JD
"When do you think he can travel?" Chris asked quietly. Jackson merely shrugged.
"Well he'll just have to stay here til he can get his feet under himself." Mr. Rueben piped up. Then added, "That devil of a grizzly had been killing our livestock and darn near keeping us prisoners here." He gazed up at his wife of 40 years and added, "you're all welcomed here in the house til it's time for yer'll to leave." Mrs. Rueben merely nodded in vigorous agreement.
That night proved a rough one for the gambler, as the storm gathered in intensity outside the fever raged out of control. Josiah dozed in the rocker Tess had lent him, with his feet up on Ezra's bed. The gambler fussed and struggled endlessly. Nightmares played out behind closed eyelids. He spoke occasionally in jumbled phrases or senseless words. Earlier in the night Josiah chuckled as the gambler must have been playing out a game of five-card stud because through his fevered dream Ezra smiled ‘kings over jacks full house'. Again he fell quiet in the grip of fever. After a while Josiah slipped off to sleep. How long he was not sure but the giant preacher jumped awake when he sensed someone staring at him. When his eyes snapped open and focused he found Ezra staring at him. Sanchez smiled and leaned forward in the rocker, "how ya feelin' pard'?"
Standish stared at him confused, "Who are you? Where's Pete?" Josiah stared at him for a second but before he could answer Ezra rolled back onto his side falling back into fevered sleep. Sanchez shook his head, "Hang in there Ezra." he placed a cold compress back on the gambler's forehead and adjusted his quilt.
The rain still pummeled the area by dawn. Tanner and JD entered the house, dripping wet after only spending a few minutes in the torrential downpour. Vin and JD shook their coats out and then joined the others for breakfast. Hot cakes, hot biscuits, jams and steaming coffee graced the small table. The Ruebens seemed to bask in the company of visitors. Josiah stifled a yawn and stretched. The rocking chair was comfortable enough but he preferred to lie down when he slept. JD witnessed this and snorted, "well at least you didn't have to listen to Buck snore all night." Chris peered over his coffee mug at J.D and then Buck, the simple cup hiding his smirk. Wilmington looked up shocked and innocent, "Me… it wasn't me." he said indignantly. Nate took a bite of biscuit pushing a stray crumb into the corner of his mouth, "You were pretty loud Buck." the healer added. Wilmington shot a look at Jackson and then the tracker, "How do you know it wasn't Vin?" he countered.
Chris chuckled as he reached for more jam, "Well it could have been but he was awake most of the night as well."
"It seems only Ezra and Buck got a good night's sleep." Mr. Rueben commented laughing.
"Well Buck at least, Ezra had a bit of a busy night." Josiah commented.
"He wake up at all?" JD asked. Nate felt bad for the kid he felt responsible for what happened, and nothing anyone, except Ezra, could say would change it.
"Yeah, but he didn't know who I was and asked for Pete." Sanchez answered cutting into his hot cakes. Mrs. Rueben was an excellent cook.
Vin, Josiah, Chris spent the morning working in the barn helping Mr. Rueben get ready for winter. JD split more wood and stacked it next to the door under the porch roof. Buck and Nate with help from Mrs. Rueben changed Standish's bandages and put a new poultice on the wound. Ezra lay limp like a rag doll. His breath rattled in his chest. Buck and Nate rolled him back onto his right side. Nate unwrapped the bandages down to the poultice. He peeled the dried clothes material off the wound exposing the ripped and torn skin and muscles. The peeling cloth debrided the wound removing the dead and dying tissue, Ezra moaned and reached blindly with his right hand, Buck grasped the gambler's hand and was surprised at the intensity in which the gambler squeezed trying to push back the pain. "Easy buddy we're almost done." Buck rested his left hand on the conman's sweating forehead. Wilmington drew Ezra's left arm up out of Nate's way as the healer scrubbed it clean causing the muscle to bleed. When he finished, Mrs. Rueben placed a fresh poultice over the large wound and together the three of them rewrapped Standish's upper body pinning his left arm across his midsection in an attempt to keep the shoulder in place.
The second day the rains let up. Chris, Vin, Buck and JD said their good byes to the Ruebens and took their leave by mid morning, hoping to make town in 2 days. Top hat Bob was still at large. Josiah and Nate would follow as soon as Ezra was ready.
Ezra did not realize what was going on. As his eyes blinked open it dawned him that he slept in a bed. He licked his dry parted lips and blinked lazily. His surroundings slowly came into view. He slept in softly lit room. His eyes focused on a nightstand and a porcelain basin that sat on its wooden surface. His eyes roamed slowly around the room without moving his head, a curtained window allowed faint sunlight into the room, he was disoriented and could not figure out if the sun was setting or rising. Ezra tried to lift his head but it took to much effort and his muscles burned with resistance. A soft moan escaped his lips. He shifted his legs, it felt as if they weighed a hundred pounds each. His knee hit something solid. Suddenly a smiling familiar face filled his view. "Well hello there." Josiah said softly. He watched as the gambler blinked trying to make sense of what was happening. Sanchez rested his hand on Standish's forehead, the fever had broken a few hours ago, sweat rolled freely down his face and neck. "How ya feeling?" He wiped Ezra's face with an old poultice.
Ezra blinked slowly again, moving his lips "Josiah?" His normally sharp green eyes were dull and glazed.
Sanchez smiled, "yeah pard it's me. You're gonna be ok. You just need some rest." Josiah leaned forward easing the quilt back checking the bandages.
Standish peered down at his wrapped chest, " A bear?"
Sanchez chuckled, "Oh yeah."
Ezra swallowed and closed his eyes tiredly, " And JD?" he whispered. Josiah pulled the quilt back up and patted Ezra's arm, "Doing fine thanks to you."
"Where are we?" Standish asked his head and back hurt. It was getting difficult to keep his eyes open.
Josiah noticed this and rested his hand on the gambler's head, "Some friends of Mr. Tanner's. Get some sleep Ezra we'll talk about it later." The preacher watched as Ezra merely nodded in agreement as his lids fluttered closed. It was only a few minutes before his chest took on the shallow rhythmic breathing of a sound sleep.
He woke to the sound of whispering. At first Ezra did not recognize the voices, but as the dregs of sleep began to wear off he realized Nate and Josiah were talking. He also noticed that he had been rolled onto his side. Something brushed against his left side and a sharp pain ripped through his body. He groaned and tried to squirm away. "Whoa hold on there Ezra, we're almost done." Nate said from somewhere behind him placing a restraining hand on his shoulder. The pain hit again and again Standish tried to move away and swung his left arm back trying to swipe away whatever caused the burning pain in his side. Josiah suddenly knelt beside him and grabbed his left hand gently pulling it forward, giving Jackson room to work. "Patience Ezra, he's almost done." Standish tried to raise his head but Sanchez forced it back onto the pillow, "Lie still." Standish blinked staring at the pillow trying to figure out exactly what was going on. "Ok lets sit him up."
Suddenly Nate and Josiah lifted him to the sitting position. Ezra tried to help but he felt weighted down. Once sitting up he finally laid eyes on Nathan. "Hold his arm up a little." Jackson requested of the preacher, Josiah complied, lifting Ezra's left arm up, this sent a sharp pain through his shoulder causing the gambler to grimace.
"That hurt." Nathan asked noticing the reaction. "Just a bit." Ezra answered through clenched teeth. Jackson merely nodded. Within a few minutes they had the gamblers ribs and arm wrapped tight again and eased him back down on the pillow. "Well you're looking better." Nathan commented as he placed the quilt up over the gambler.
"How you feelin'?" Jackson laid his hand on his patient's forehead, fever broke and has been staying down. Even now his eyes appeared brighter and more alert to his surroundings. He was weak, extremely weak, unable to hold his head up off the pillow.
"Better?" He answered unsure with the characteristic raised eyebrow.
"Well yeah considering last night you were talking to people only you could see." Jackson smiled as a concerned expression crossed the conman's face. "Don't worry we couldn't make heads or tails of what you were babbling about." He sat comfortably on the edge of the bed, even with the fever broken, Standish appeared pale and haggard. It would be a day or two before he'd be able to get up and move around on his own.
"How long have I been out?" His voice sounded unfamiliar to even himself, thick with sleep and gruff from exhaustion.
"Two days." Nathan said and chuckled at Ezra's surprise, a raised eyebrow. Sanchez laughed and patted the conman's bare shoulder comfortingly. "Don't worry you really weren't out." The preacher added. The healer continued, " Vin, Chris, Buck and JD headed back this morning when the storm broke." Nathan stood up and stretched looking out the window as Josiah slipped out of the small guest room probably to get something to eat. "We'll join 'em in a few days. As soon as you're ready to travel." Jackson watch as Standish ran his right hand over his left side and arm and then gazed questionably up at the knife-wielding healer. "Dislocated your shoulder again, and had a few layers of muscles rearranged over some ribs. It got infected but it seems to have subsided."
Jackson sat in the rocker beside the bed, " You are one lucky devil." Standish smiled again, pleased lady luck seemed to help him out when he least expected it. He stretched his legs trying very hard not to disturb his ribs and arm. He stifled a yawn and his stomach growled. Josiah came in carrying a biscuit and a cup of water. "You should be hungry." He handed the warmed biscuit to gambler who turned it absently in his hand trying to figure if he were truly hungry or not.
"Eat it, you need it." Jackson said watching the conman manipulate the biscuit between his fingers like he did a card when he contemplated other things.
"When do we leave?" Ezra asked trying to convince himself to nibble on the biscuit. His stomach growled again, and his mouth watered he was either going to get sick or truly needed something to eat. Standish lifted the homemade bread to his mouth and took a tentative bite. He held it down. Josiah's gaze met Nate's both nodded and shrugged, they were not sure if he would get sick or not, apparently not, that was good. Nate and Josiah told Ezra about where they were and what had happened over the past few days, and Standish listened as he slowly gnawed on the biscuit. He could not lift his head off the pillow to sip the water, Josiah recognized this and effortlessly lifted Ezra's head off the pillow and gently tipped the cup allowing the gambler to sip the tepid water. Standish thirst suddenly grew and he wanted to finish the cup and held Josiah's hand with his trying desperately to quench his thirst, "Whoa that's enough for now." Sanchez policed gently pulling the cup away and easing Ezra's head back onto the pillow. "To much may make you sick." Standish merely nodded, closing his eyes, he had not felt this run down in a long time. Nathan and Josiah quietly slipped out of the room and let him sleep.
He slept the rest of the day and night. Mrs. Rueben would crack the door and peer in at the young man. He slept mostly on his right side, favoring his torn left side and injured shoulder. Since the fever had broken, he slept more soundly his dreams less dramatic. She noticed he still mumbled and gestured with his free hand occasionally tossing his head, but the temperature stayed down and for the most part he slept deeply. Josiah and Nathan busied themselves around the homestead fixing the roof after the heavy winds and repairing fences. On the fourth day Mrs Rueben gazed up from her knitting surprised to find the young gambler standing in the doorway of the kitchen. She immediately jumped up and hurried over to him. "Oh young man you should not be out of bed." Ezra leaned heavily into the archway but smiled his most ingratiating smile and said, " How bout if we settle on sitting in chair." He let her slip her thin shoulders under his right arm and guide him to the couch. He was surprised by her strength, with shaky trembling legs he gratefully let her ease him onto their couch. "Now you just sit there and I'll fix you something to eat." She hurried off to the small kitchen and Standish leaned wearily back against the couch, closing his eyes. How long he sat like that he was not sure but when he opened his eyes he was lying down on the couch a pillow under his head and a blanket tossed over him. He lay quietly for a moment blinking drifting back to sleep and waking up again quickly, swallowing and yawning. He noticed it was dark outside and people were speaking softly in the next room. Ezra lay quietly letting things sink in, at first he was disoriented and confused as to his whereabouts but slowly things began to filter back. He attempted to sit up and found it required more effort he thought necessary and actually considered laying back down. His stomach growled and felt tight with hunger, so he struggled to the sitting position resting his right forearm on his thigh with his neck bent hanging his head tiredly. He sat like that for a few moments before pushing himself to his feet. He wobbled unsteadily on shaky legs as the room spun out of control forcing Ezra to grip the arm of the couch and steady himself. When the spinning slowed to a manageable pace he cautiously made his way toward the voices.
"Well, well look who's up and moving." Josiah said as he looked up and saw the unsteady half dressed gambler looking uncharacteristically disheveled. His normally well kept shortly cropped hair stood up on end in spots. His once bright green eyes and sharp features appeared dull. There was no spring in his step and the carefree attitude which normally emanated from him did not exist. He picked his steps carefully an uncertain air hung about him. He hurt, and the pain alone was enough to knock anyone off their feet but the fever and past week of not eating properly and speak nothing or being chased and nearly devoured by a grizzly twice had taken its toll on the gambler. He fought to survive and now he paid the price, every muscle ached, his legs cramped and stomach, abdomen, hurt and tight from hunger. The body put up with only so much insult and then it shut down and slept. Sanchez watched as the gambler eased himself into a kitchen chair, his right arm shook with exertion as he gently eased himself down. His body had decided it had enough, if Standish would not consciously take it easy then the body, out of self-preservation, would simply stop performing. Josiah held a supportive hand out to carefully guide his friend into the chair. "You're looking better." Sanchez said smiling. Ezra shot him a look from under heavy eyelids, "you're a terrible liar, dear sir." Standish did not eat much that night and retired to bed early, without any assistance. "Your friend is looking better, I think." Mr. Rueben stated as he and his wife climbed to their feet ready to go off to bed. Jackson smiled and rubbed his eyes, the last few days had been rough for everybody. "Yeah he is looking better." Nathan waited until the Ruebens disappeared behind the closed bedroom door and addressed Josiah, "He should be ready to travel in a couple of days." He stood up and stretched tiredly then added, "If you don't want to hang around, I can wait here while you join the others." Jackson laid out his bed roll and Josiah followed suit, "No that's alright, I have a sneaking suspicion that our dear gambler will not have an easy time passing through that area again." The x-preacher kicked off his worn boots and settled comfortably on the floor. Jackson stared at him for a moment and softly added, "Yeah I didn't think of that."
A few days passed and at first the gambler slept most of the time and spent those few waking hours eating delicately, testing his stomach. As the few days wore on Ezra spent more time awake and playing cards and ate regular meals. At lunch Nathan asked, "You up to leaving in the morning?" Standish glanced up from his buttered bread and nodded with assurance, "I think so." He appeared more like his old self, a smile playing at the corner of his dimpled mouth.
"We'll leave at first light then." Josiah added, Ezra grimaced, "why first light, why not midmorning or a little later, we're always leaving for somewhere at some unrealistic hour of the morning. Lets try something new and leave closer to noon?"
"Are you through?" Sanchez asked slightly amused. Standish wrinkled his brow and nodded.
"Good" Josiah peered across the table at Nate, "I'll check on the horses and make sure the gear is ready," Sanchez then indicated with his head to the gambler, "He's your responsibility, we leave at first light."
Nathan bit back a chuckle and Ezra hung his head in resignation, he normally went to bed in the morning, not wake up. The Ruebens watched the exchange with amusement they had grown fond of the younger men. It was nice to have visitors but they were glad that they were going to get their house back soon.
Early morning always came to fast for the conman whether it found him sleeping or still at the gaming tables. Nathan quietly called Ezra's name from the doorway, when that failed to get a response he was forced to gently prod his shoulder, calling his name. This too failed, Nathan sighed, Standish normally was a heavy sleeper, but the recent pasted events had taken there pound of flesh, his body was still healing, sleep most times was the best medicine. With more vigor Nathan shook Ezra's blanketed shoulder, "Come on Ezra let's go." Jackson peered out the bedroom window the sun just climbing over the horizon casting a purple grey hue in the brightening sky. "Oh gawd it's morning already?" Standish's voice thick with sleep he rolled gingerly onto his back favoring his shoulder and ribs. "Up and at ‘em, time to go." Jackson chuckled helping Standish to sit up. Once the gambler got his bearings he was able to dress needing minimal assistance from Nathan. They found Josiah waiting for them in the kitchen munching on hot bread. "You two finally ready?" He laughed when Ezra shot him a tired annoyed glare. "Oh Mr. Standish mornings aren't that bad." Mrs. Rueben chided gently watching the half-awake gambler shuffle toward the hot homemade bread. "Mrs. Rueben, Ezra here only sees this time of day when he is going to bed." Nathan smiled.
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