The Unknown Form
by Gill Armitage
Chapters 19 - 32 added 12 September 2005
It was mid July and the heat was oppressive, almost unbearable. Despite it though, the town of Four Corners bustled with people. Towns folk, cowboys and drifters moving up and down Main Street all going about their business. All were watched at different times and from different places by the seven men that took care of the town.
Buck Wilmington was the ladies man; some would say the scoundrel. To those around him he spent most of his time and efforts trying to wend his way into any woman's heart. He was tall and handsome and knew exactly what to say and how to say it to get almost anything he wanted from the fairer sex. On occasion this had worked too well and he had been known to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction if a lady took his advances to heart. He enjoyed fishing but did not want to be the fish. He had no intentions of being caught. But woe betide anyone who hurt one of his friends, he could turn from being a smooth talking cad into a wild cougar in the blink of an eye, he was fast on the draw and as accurate as he needed to be.
He was standing outside the cigar shop savouring a new brand when he noticed the large spotted horse and dusty rider coming down Main Street, headed for the livery. As per standing orders from Chris all strangers were to be checked on to find out what their business in town was and how long they were staying. There had been too many new faces in the last week. Buck collected Vin from the front of the saloon and headed in a leisurely stroll down to the livery. They walked into the cool dark of the stables and after waiting for a few seconds to get accustomed to the dark they began to look around for the unusually distinctive horse.
"Are you sure it was a Palouse Buck?" asked Vin, who had only ever seen one before now and that had been in New York, it had been owned by a very rich businessman who bred distinctive, rare animals. His one and only trip to the East had been enough to keep him out West the rest of his life. He had found out that there were not many Appaloosas around and were therefore expensive to own. When Buck had approached him at the front of the saloon and described the animal it had piqued his interest.
Vin Tanner, the Texan, was the quiet one, he had lived with the Indians for a while and amongst other things he was a fair tracker and an excellent sharpshooter. He had a healthy respect for the land and everything in it. His one true soft spot was for Nettie Wells, an elderly lady living out of town with her niece. He had become a close friend and confidant to Chris, a balance almost, but given the right circumstances could be deadly with a gun or knife.
"I know a Palouse when I see one Vin, they ain't exactly comin' out of the woodwork around here are they, besides it's our job to check it out."
As they moved deeper into the stables Vin stopped Buck by touching his arm and then pointed to the stall second from the end. The animal stood calmly chewing from the manger. Buck came up from behind and gently laid his hand on the animal's back sliding it up and over its neck. The horse was large for its breed, 16 hands at least with mostly a solid mousy brown colour except for its rump and hindquarters, which were white with splotches of brown here and there.
"Yep it's definitely an Appaloosa, and a damn fine animal to boot. It's been ridden long and hard but it sure is in good condition. The fella that owns this sure knows how to treat a fine bit of horse flesh." His hand moved over to the right side of the animal, his fingers tracing the brand. The letter R with two lightning bolts through the middle. "Unusual brand, hard to fake," he mumbled almost to himself.
If anyone had been looking at that moment they would have thought Vin had fallen in love. His hand was gently caressing the back and hindquarters of the large animal as if it was china.
"Excuse me!" the voice came from behind and startled Buck into drawing his gun; he relaxed when he saw it was Tiny, the livery owner.
"Can I help you two?" said the slightly startled man.
"The fella this horse belongs to, where's his rig?" Vin was drawn to the back of the stables where Tiny pointed. Slung across the rail was a beautiful hand tooled black & tan saddle. There was a scabbard for a rifle and to his astonishment an empty holster designed into the rear left side of the saddle for a gun and a knife.
"Buck this here is an expensive rig, I ain't never seen a saddle like this afore." Buck turned to Tiny and asked if the stranger had said anything.
"Yeah, he asked how much it was long term to keep his horse here and where the best place was to bunk down, I told him where the Ritz hotel was and after he rubbed his horse down I guess he headed in that direction."
"Come on Buck, let's go check him out, I reckon Chris is gonna be interested in this guy."
The stranger's name was B J Roslin; at least that was what the register said at the hotel. The clerk said he had paid for a week up front, "Wanted a room on the front top floor if he could get it, well it was there so I let him have it, I dun right didn't I Mr Tanner?"
"Yeah sure, there's no problem, just checking him out, bein' as he's a stranger an' all."
He was about to turn and leave when the clerk added, "It was kind a strange..."
"Well he asked for a bath, didn't want to go to the bath house, wanted one brought to his room, and hot water."
"Maybe he just wanted a peaceful bath, I know I sure wish I could get one now and again." Buck looked at Vin and added, "Don't say it, I know it's usually my fault. I can't help it if the women in this town always have something urgent to say to me when I'm havin' a bath." Vin had to turn away quick so that Buck would not see the big grin that crossed his face. Buck was always having trouble with the ladies one way or the other.
"Come on, let's report this to Chris and get back to watching main street okay, we can talk to this fella later, I'm sure he'll be out to get food and a drink at some point."
B J watched from the window as the two handsome young men left the hotel. Turning to look into the room B J was pleased to see that the bed was large and looked clean and comfortable, a bed was something that B J had not slept in for several months, it had been sorely missed.
A knock on the door turned out to be the bath and hot water that had been ordered. The clerk had looked amused at the idea but had arranged it none the less. With the money he was getting paid he had no reason to refuse.
Once undressed and settled into the hot welcoming water B J began to muse on what to do that evening. Food was definitely on the menu as a grumble erupted from the now empty stomach. The saloon had looked like an interesting place to get some entertainment, a drink, a game of cards maybe.
Who had those two men been? The local law possibly, checking up on a new face. B J would have to be extra careful around them.
Ezra Standish was seated at his usual table in the saloon, at first glance most men would have seen a gambler, a man dressed so finely to be almost out of place in that rough little town. A man who would take your money without pause, who would con you out of everything you owned just because he could. He was a handsome man without a doubt, not tall but lean and muscular. What many people failed to see was a man who could take care of himself. The guns he carried were not just for show, he could use each one of them to the deadliest extent that they were designed for and he was fast, faster than even his friends realised.
Earlier that evening two local cowboys had joined him for a game. He had decided to take it easy on them as he knew they were family men and could not afford to lose too much, but hell he was gonna take some of their money, just to teach them a lesson if nothing else.
He looked up as a stranger in a buckskin jacket came through the swing doors, the first thing he noticed was he was a lefty or a south paw as some put it. His gun was hanging on his left hip. The holster was even more decoratively tooled than his own. His hat was black with what looked like turquoise and leather entwined around the crown. The jacket was tailored and the shirt was white and crisp clean and actually looked to be two sizes bigger than the man inside it. The trousers were jet-black good quality material and very tight around... /His legs were very shapely for a man./ Ezra shook his head, /You need to bed you a woman soon Ezra,/ he said to himself, /you're starting to scare me./
The stranger walked up to the bar and ordered a beer, then sat down at one of the tables opposite Ezra. His face was clean shaven with a well shaped jaw, that was virtually all he could see as the stranger's head was kept down and the hat covered most of his face.
What did surprise Ezra were the hands. Being a gambler he naturally noticed people's hands. It had saved his life and a good deal of money on many occasions. The fingers were long and slender; the nails were short but well looked after and clean. That was unusual in itself, most cowboys, drifters, farmers or even townsfolk had dirty and broken fingernails, it was a trademark of the land. The bones in the stranger's hands were also small as well as the wrist. He shook his head again, as the thought came to him that they were more like a woman's hands. /You seriously need to get out more,/ he looked around almost in desperation, none of the saloon girls were free so he turned back to his game and concentrated on winning a few dollars from the hard up cowboys at the table with him.
The saloon suddenly got crowded as the other six regulators or lawmen for Four Corners headed up by Chris Larabee walked in, each of them acknowledged Ezra as they walked up to the bar and ordered whatever they were drinking that night.
Chris Larabee was the undisputed leader of the seven. His Colt .45 Peacemaker with bone handles and the silver conchos on his gun belt were the only things he wore that were not black. To anybody who chose to cause trouble in his town he was like the devil himself. To his friends he was an enigma, bad tempered one minute and with a smile the next that would melt even the hardest of hearts. Buck Wilmington was the only one who truly knew the man inside. He had known him for many years, had been as close to being a part of his family as anyone could. But Chris had changed since the death of his wife and son and it had taken a long time for Buck to pull him around from the path of self-destruction he had ended up on.
"Well gentlemen, I believe that's me done for the evening, duty calls." Ezra rose and walked over to Chris. "I assume Mr Larabee that I am now on night watch. I once again protest at having to cut into my earning time at the tables when it is the most lucrative."
"Protest noted Ezra, but you were warned last week that you would have some night watches to do, it's only fair, now quit bitchin' and get out there." Chris was not in a particularly savoury mood that evening; too many new faces had turned up over the last few days for no apparent reason. Keeping an eye on all of them was causing a strain even in the usually happy go lucky Buck.
JD jumped forward. "Ezra wait up, I'll come with ya, I could do with a little air." JD Dunne was the youngest of the seven; he was also the town's official sheriff. He had arrived from New York, full of the joys of youth and eager to make his mark on the west, he had grown up with stories of cowboys and gunfighters and since his arrival in Four Corners had proved that he had learned a lot. He was deadly fast with the twin guns he sported and equally proficient with both hands. Being the youngest he was fiercely protected by the other members of the team, Buck especially cared for him as if he was a brother. Trying to get them to take him seriously was a full time job for JD.
Vin noticed the stranger as he got up to leave and took in his appearance within a second. "Hey Josiah, another south paw," he said in a quiet voice. Josiah turned and noticing the stranger for the first time seemed to look twice as if seeing something the others hadn't.
"Something wrong Josiah?" asked a concerned Vin, having noticed the look on Josiah's face.
"No." Josiah paused, then looked over at Vin, "Just the way he walks is all, it's nothin'."
B J walked up the sidewalk from the saloon noticing the two lawmen as they crossed the street just ahead. The alleys were dark and it was quiet outside, which was a big change from the hustle in the saloon. B J's attention was snatched by a movement of the shadows just ahead. Realising what it was B J shouted ahead and immediately drew the six gun hanging from the fancy rig. A man came out of the alley up ahead sporting a gun; it was aimed in the direction of the two men. Without thinking B J fired winging the man in his left arm. No one noticed the second man coming out of the shadows ahead of Ezra and JD until it was too late.
JD felt the jolt of the bullet before hearing the sound. He was spun around with the force and ended on his back, he looked down to see a blossoming red mark on his lower left side. Funny there wasn't any pain; in fact it was numb. JD looked up as he heard the boom of two guns almost in unison. Ezra and the stranger both had their guns up and aimed just behind him. He turned his head to see a body twist and fall almost in slow motion.
Within moments the street was crowded with people as they streamed out of the saloon and nearby establishments. Nathan was hovering over JD. "I'm fine honest, I can't feel nothing," pleaded JD as three sets of hands lifted him and moved him slowly towards Nathan's clinic.
"I just want to check you out JD there's a whole lot of blood for nothing." JD looked down again to his side and as if seeing it for the first time gasped as a shot of overwhelming pain coursed through his body. "What happened? It didn't hurt a moment ago, what happened?" the worried strained voice of Buck could be heard through the mist of pain.
"Just shock JD, you'll be fine. He will be fine won't he Nate?"
Back on the street Ezra was still standing where he had been when he had heard the shout. Chris was stood next to him. "What happened Ezra?" He put his hand on his shoulder. A concerned look crossed Chris' face. He almost looked like he was in shock.
"We just crossed the street when I heard a shout, I turned back in time to see that gentleman," he pointed to the stranger in buckskins "shoot that fella comin' out of the alley by the saloon. I was about to question him as to why when I heard JD shout I just reacted and fired. It would appear he did the same."
"Chris." Josiah was knelt by the man who had come out of the alley. "He's still alive, just nicked on the arm, must have passed out." Chris walked over glancing momentarily at the stranger they had seen in the saloon. He was standing over the wounded man with his gun still out. As he reached the prostrate man he gave him a slight nudge with his boot. The man groaned and woke up starring with wild nervous eyes at the three men towering over him.
"Who are you? Why d'ya come after my men?" The man could see he was cornered with no chance to escape. This was not what he had bargained for.
"We was paid mister, he wanted ya hurt or dead it didn't matter." His wild eyes flicked to Ezra.
"Who did?" Ezra moved to stand next to Chris. "Who wanted me dead?"
"I don't know his name, he was some rich fella down in New Orleans said to come north and find a fancy dressed dandy working in some back of the woods town called Four Corners."
Ezra looked shocked and miffed at the same time. "I assure you sir I am no dandy, just because I choose to dress as a gentleman in this rough uncivilised country does not make me a dandy." Chris almost had to hold Ezra back as he saw his temper rising. It was amazing to see such a little thing as a word get such a reaction out of the usually calm demeanour of the gambler.
"Josiah get this piece of trash off my street, he can wait in the jail until Nate can see him, mayhaps he'll bleed to death afore he gets there." Chris turned to the stranger who had been standing quietly to the side. His gun was now holstered. It took only a few seconds for him to look the man over. He was 5ft 8in approximately, of slight build, tanned skin and clean-shaven, he had strikingly blue eyes. He could see a wisp of blonde hair under the expensive hat. In fact all the clothes he was wearing were either very practical or very expensive. The gun and hip holster were also expensive, well worn but looked after.
"I'm obliged for your help Mr...?" he paused waiting for a response.
"Roslin, B J Roslin." The voice was quiet.
"May I ask what your business is in town and how long you're planning on staying?" Chris looked around him as he waited for an answer, he was glad to see the townsfolk moving back into the saloon off the street.
"I was informed there was a small ranch just outside of town on the market, I plan on buying it and settling down, any objections?"
"None as far as I can see, was you planning on a job as well?" Ezra moved to stand next to Chris, he was looking quizzically into the face of the man.
"Not at the moment, but I may soon, I've been a tracker, pretty good with a horse and a gun." B J turned to look at Ezra and added "Also been known to win a hand or two at the gaming tables."
"I'd be happy to play a hand or two with you sir." Ezra had obviously come out of his stupor. "Especially after you just saved my life most possibly." He grinned under his hat, his gold tooth catching the light from the saloon window. /His eyes were real blue,/ mused Ezra. He mentally shrugged off the thought.
"Maybe later, if you don't mind gentlemen I would like to return to the saloon for the meal I was planning on having before all this started." Ezra nodded his head as the man tipped his hat and turned back to the saloon. He waited until he was out of earshot, then turned to Chris.
"Well what do you make of him. Slightly outré don't you think?" Chris looked up quizzically into Ezra's face.
"Why couldn't you have just said that the first time." Chris shook his head; amused once again at some of the things Ezra came out with.
"I thought I did." The two men looked briefly at the departing stranger and turned together to sort out the dead man lying in the street. Chris' attention was drawn to searching through the pockets of the man who had shot JD. His inside jacket pocket revealed a wad of bills that amounted to nearly $100.
"Well someone sure paid him a lot to kill you, any idea who it was Ezra?"
"From New Orleans, it could have been one of many, I have so many friends! In that fair town." Chris chuckled to himself; thinking that with the kind of friends Ezra had his life would never be boring.
"Go fetch the undertaker, I'm gonna check on JD." Chris headed off to Nathan's clinic. Ezra turned and with a last look towards the saloon and a shrug of his shoulders, he headed to the undertaker's office.
B J finished the meal that had been ordered, paid and headed back to the hotel room. Standing in front of the mirror over the wash bowl she took off her hat allowing her long blonde hair to fall out over her shoulders and looked firmly at the face looking back.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid, what were you thinking, your supposed to keep a low profile, blend in stay out of trouble until you get the ranch, but no." She unbuckled the gun, took off her jacket and eased off the shoulder holster that held a small colt. Laying back on the bed she thought how she was going to stay out of the way until the Land office opened on the Monday morning. It wasn't going to be easy, she still needed to eat and although her funds were plentiful at the moment she would need to boost them soon. She did not want to have to wire back home to her lawyer in New York to get more money just yet. Her allowance only stretched so far, she had another five months to wait before money ceased to be a problem forever.
She would have to be careful of the one called Ezra, she had seen the way he had looked at her, was it possible he knew she was a woman and not the man she was pretending to be. In some states it was not looked on too favourably for women to dress in men's clothing. At any other time or place she would not have minded his eyes being on her.
Dammit what was wrong with earning a living the way men did. She was every bit as good as an Indian when it came to tracking, she had lived off the land for months at a time, surviving on her own wits. Her skill with a gun was unheard of for a woman, she may not be as fast as some but she always hit what she aimed at. She had been able to ride since the age of four and had helped her Father with his three stud farms outside of New York. He had a passion for the breeding and rearing of rare horses that had been passed on to his daughter. Dudley her Appaloosa was from one of those farms, he was the first horse she had tamed from a foal.
It wasn't her fault she had been born a girl, something her Father had taught her was to stand on her own two feet and make a life she wanted, not the one that society said was fittin' and proper for a lady. After her Mother had passed away suddenly when she was eight years old she had pretty much lived in men's clothes, they were much more practical around horses and they were a darn sight more comfortable.
The ladies of New York had scoffed at her apparel and her lack of feminine ways. That was why she had moved out west when her Father had died five years ago. She would be twenty-five years old on December 7th and would inherit her Father's estate, a very wealthy estate as far as her lawyer was concerned. Until then she intended to live her life the way she wanted. Her every intention was to re-locate her Father's business and settle in this area. When she inherited she would be wealthier than many of the women in New York and could be as eccentric as she chose. Her lawyer Mr Simmons had agreed that it was prudent to scope out new areas for the Stud Farms so had allowed her slightly more of an allowance on occasion than her Father had stipulated. It was he who had found out that a suitable site was up for sale near Four Corners.
Mr Simmons had never voiced his opinions over her apparel or the way she now lived her life; in fact he generally encouraged her. That part of him had always surprised her because he had always come across as an old fashioned gentleman. She would have to ask him one day why he treated her differently to other women he knew.
Out here she could be what she wanted. Even though she had to hide the fact that she was a woman to all around her. That wasn't a problem, in some cases it was fun. That Ezra fella was mighty attractive, she would enjoy being around him. She could still feel the shiver that had gone through her when she had seen those green eyes staring at her. She would have to be careful around him as well, things could get out of hand.
Nathan was working over JD when Chris walked through the door of the clinic; he looked at the black man marvelling at how an ex slave could gain so much knowledge about medicine and surgery. He knew that Nathan had worked with a field surgeon during the war and had gained most of his expertise there and had also learned that the healer knew a lot about knives and swords having learnt that from his previous master. He was good with a gun as well and had been known to use his knives for more than healing when the occasion had presented itself. He shook his head at the dedication this man had to the group of lawmen and the town.
Buck and Vin were both looking on anxiously from the far wall. Buck looked as pale as JD at that moment, Chris knew the feelings he had for the young man on the bed, he was like a younger brother to Buck and consequently was watched over very carefully by him.
"Nate, how is he?" a worried look crossed Chris' face at the amount of blood on JD's clothes.
"He's lost a lot of blood but the bullet went through, I don't think it hit anything vital." Nathan straightened up to ease his back and then bent down again to begin stitching him up. "Time will tell, but I think he will be fine". As if on cue a moan was heard from the injured man. Chris, Buck & Vin almost jumped on top of him in their haste to make sure he was ok.
"Who hit me?" moaned a weak and confused JD. "Who ever is sitting on me get off."
"Wake up JD, wake up, come on now quit scarrin' us." Nathan gently patted the young mans head with a cool damp cloth as he spoke softly to him, trying to coax him out of his dreams.
"I'm awake, Nathan get that thing off me, I'm okay... I think!" The last was said in a gasp as he tried to move and felt a searing pain through the left side of his body.
"Let that be a lesson to ya. Now stay still and do as your told, always getting y'self into trouble when my back is turned, what am I gonna do wid ya boy". This was from Buck, although he sounded harsh, his words were coated in concern for the boy, yes at the moment he was no more than a boy, lying in that bed.
"Yes Ma." said a sheepish looking JD. The others in the room turned slightly to hide the grins that covered their faces whenever Buck chastised JD.
"Nathan when your finished here, and only when your sure he's ok, can ya take a look at that weasel that shot at JD & Ezra, he's messin' up my jail bleedin' out of a scratch in his arm." Chris was not too concerned for the man in the jail; he just hated having to clean up after them.
"Yeah sure Chris as soon as I have this young man stitched, bandaged and asleep" he looked around him at the three men in the room. "I'm sure one of these fine fellas here will watch JD when I'm done."
Buck leapt forward. "There ain't no need for any o you guys to stay I'll make sure he behaves, or else." he gave the now sleepy looking JD a stern look.
An hour later Josiah caught up with Ezra back in the saloon; he was sat at his table playing of all things solitaire.
"What's wrong Ezra, no takers for a game?" He had never seen Ezra playing solitaire especially when there were so many new faces in town to fleece.
"Yes well, I was just thinking about that B J fellow that just happened to be there to save my skin this evening, solitaire helps me think, put things in order, you know?" Josiah could see that Ezra was on another planet. It concerned him that this incident had affected him so much.
"Yeah I know," he paused, "What sort of things are puzzling you about him brother?" Ezra looked over at the large kindly faced man. He grinned.
"There are some things a man does not talk about Mr Sanchez, I believe my thoughts at this time are best kept private. No offence intended."
"None taken, but don't sit there pondering too long, Chris says you still have 4 hours of your watch left."
"Yes I suppose I must fulfil my duties to this town even though it cuts in to my social pleasures." Ezra sighed and pushed the chair back as he rose.
He walked out onto the now deserted street and turned south towards the church. He had the oddest feeling he was being watched and turned to scan the doors and windows around him, he did not see the curtain move on the upper floor of the hotel. He shrugged his shoulders, told himself it was just the evening's events that had put him on edge and continued his patrol of the main street.
The preacher watched quietly as Ezra left the saloon. For a moment he had hoped that the gambler would open up to him, but he had pushed too hard and the shutters had snapped closed again. One day he would get to know the real man behind the façade.
Josiah was a big man, some would say not handsome but with a face that told a thousand stories. His shear size frightened many wan-a-be outlaws into re-considering their chosen careers. He had been a preacher once in his past and still held solidly to many of the dictates of that profession. He was a good listener and a good friend to those he let in. He was also fiercely protective of his flock as he put it. He rarely wore a gun around town but knew how to use one, his chosen side arm was actually a large ten inch blade, he could use it deftly and had proved that to more than one criminal in the past.
He caught sight of Chris & Vin as they left Nathan's clinic heading to the jailhouse. "Chris can I talk to you about this B J fella?"
"Sure Josiah, what's troublin' ya?"
"Well I'm not sure really, it's little things like the way he moves, the way he talks. That rig of his and that horse, I went down to the livery and had a look after Vin & Buck described it, I ain't never seen such a high bred animal round these parts afore."
"Well just because the man is unusual doesn't mean anything's wrong, he may be from the East that would explain the mannerisms and certainly the horse." Josiah could see that Chris was trying to convince himself of his own words. Maybe he was right, maybe they were just a little jumpy after the shooting. He decided to let it lie.
"Yeah well maybe your right Chris, I'll be turning in now, see ya in the morning." He turned and headed towards the church, leaving Chris and Vin pondering on the things he had said.
After Josiah had left, Vin turned to look at his friend as they continued to walk. "Being from back East don't explain away how good he is with that gun, you only get that good from a lot of practice and real use." he paused, "I ain't never seen no one from back East that good."
"JD's from back east, he's good." Chris stopped in his tracks just before reaching the door to the jail. "Vin I was thinkin', we could do with a hand around here on occasion, you know when we have to leave town. I was thinkin' of asking this B J Roslin to fill in on occasion. Like you said, he's mighty handy with that gun, doesn't seem the type to fly off the handle. What do ya think?"
"Hell Chris that's an almighty big responsibility you puttin' on a mans shoulders, especially when ya don't really know him or who he is. I agree he looks after his horse, his rig and hisself but that don't make him reliable enough after only one day knowing him." Vin had to admit to himself that having only met the man briefly he did like him. Something about him put him at ease, but something also told him that there was more to this man than met the eye.
After a few moments of silence Chris responded. "Yeah, ya may be right, we'll see what happens over the next few days or so."
The next few weeks proved to be enlightening to the seven lawmen. The man who had shot at Ezra & JD was sentenced to six months in prison and escorted to Denver. Two other strangers were run out of town after creating a ruckus at the boarding house, they had had a few too many to drink at Diggers Saloon and had torn up two of the rooms. They were fined and summarily kicked out of town.
B J Roslin managed to get to the Land Office on the Monday morning. She secured the purchase of the property approximately 10 miles out of town and then wired her lawyer in New York to send money and arrange to have the stock and some of the ranch hands sent out to set the place up. She trusted these men as they had been with her Father for 10 years and knew who she was and how she lived her life. The foreman and his second were loyal men and had vowed to keep her secret when she had left. Her plans were to start breading some of the horses with the local hardy stock to produce an animal of quality and endurance as well as continuing to improve on the Appaloosa breed. Only the Indians seemed to take pride in owning Appaloosa's. Since the steady decline of the Indian nation the Appaloosa had been seen as a symbol of something bad and was therefore hunted down and killed in many States. Her Father's dream had been to save the breed and introduce the Appaloosa to the upper gentry of society.
According to her Lawyer Mr Simmons (a man who had known her since birth) it would take up to 4 months for the ranch hands and the stock to reach her. They would have to be driven carefully as they were expensive animals and hard to replace. She also knew that at least six of the mares chosen to come out to Four Corners were with foul, so extra care would be needed. That four months would give her time to settle in and get the ranch ready. It would also give her time to assess the lay of the land and the townsfolk.
Each weekend B J would come into town to collect supplies, have a real hot bath at the hotel. (The desk clerk was getting used to the unusual requests of 'the stranger'). She would pick up supplies and fill a wagon she had bought from the livery. The Saturday afternoon she would have a decent cooked meal. Anything she didn't have to cook herself always tasted great, and then she would spend the evening in the saloon playing cards with Ezra Standish mostly or one of the other six men who took care of the town. She always went home with more money than she came in with, but never from Ezra, no matter how many times she played with him she never won. That man was good, in more ways than one. She began to learn a lot about gamblin' from Ezra and he had no qualms about teaching her.
The thing that puzzled most folks was the fact that B J Roslin spent most of the Sunday morning in church. People were curious as to what B J talked about all those hours to Josiah. No one had dared ask Josiah yet and he wasn't telling.
Of course to all those around her she was still a man. She had taken great care to ensure that that was what they saw. She had even taken to darkening her face and chin with make-up to make it look like the first signs of an unshaved face. So far things were working well.
The second weekend she came to town there was a gunfight in the street. A group of men had ridden in to town on the Thursday evening and had been getting steadily drunk since then. Chris and Vin had warned them that any problems would be dealt with severely. They just hadn't listened.
About two hours after B J had ridden into town on the Saturday morning she had felt the tension in the air and had stood out on the porch in front of the general store. The storekeeper was putting together her list of supplies.
She turned her head as the first shots were heard in the back of the saloon, her gun was in her left hand in the blink of an eye, she turned and crossed the street toward the trouble. The voice in the back of her head was telling her to back off and leave it to the lawmen, but she somehow knew she needed to help. She kept her gun low and next to her thigh, out of sight to any who would be looking.
A flash of light caught her eye and she looked up to a room above the bathhouse. Whoever was in the room had not seen her as she stood under the overhang for the sidewalk. The barrel of a rifle could be seen clearly from where she stood. She turned and saw Buck and Ezra coming out of the Sheriff's Office, they had not seen the shooter in the upper room and from their angle would not see him until it was too late.
Without thinking she ran into the street raised her gun and fired through the fluttering curtain. She knew she had hit her mark when the rifle fell from the window. She heard Ezra and Buck coming across the street to her and turned to join them in whatever trouble was left. All three turned as one to head back to the saloon where gunfire still erupted.
Ezra turned to her "Thanks B J, looks like you were in the right place at the right time, I..." She never heard the rest as a sudden searing pain went through her upper left arm. The force turned her and she landed in the open arms of Ezra. As if practised all three turned as one and fired their guns into the open window.
The man who had been hidden there toppled unceremoniously out of the window and landed with a thud that told all he was dead.
As the dust settled the three were still fixed in position. Buck was in a slight crouch; Ezra was on one knee his left arm around B J's body holding her where she had landed. All three still had their guns trained on the window waiting as if there might be another shooter.
After a few seconds Ezra lifted B J to a standing position. "I'm fine Ezra," she said struggling to get out of his arms. Being that close was more than she could handle. "It's only a scratch, see." It was indeed only a bullet score along the fleshy part of the upper arm, but Ezra knew all too well that the shock from even such a small wound could be serious.
"Wait here for Nathan, we'll deal with this." He felt suddenly protective towards this man.
"Oh yeah, like you would have dealt with that if I hadn't been here, I'm coming. I'm fine honestly, it's not even bleeding anymore." Within moments the trouble was ended, two men lay dead in the saloon by the hands of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, three more had been wounded by Ezra, Buck and B J and had given up their guns. Nathan fixed up a ricochet scratch on Chris' head and then put a bandage around B J's arm. He agreed that the wound was superficial and nothing to worry about.
That evening she sat with Ezra, Buck, Vin and JD playing poker. Her arm was sore but she had had worse aches than that after putting up fences and cutting down hay all day. "How's your side JD?" she asked him while the cards were being dealt.
"Fine now, hardly feel a thing. I been meaning to catch up with ya to say thanks, I understand it was you practically saved our bacon out there two weeks ago and today."
"Well I wasn't the only one out there, Ezra was there as well, he would have saved the day if I hadn't been there most like." Ezra looked up from his cards, their eyes met momentarily, she quickly looked away. This was getting worse; maybe she shouldn't come in to town anymore.
"Well thanks anyway, and you Ezra." JD went back to musing over his cards. Buck and Vin noticed that Ezra remained quiet. It was most unlike him not to react to a compliment or a thank you from anyone. They eyed each other quizzically and returned to the game.
Over the next few months B J's routine became normal to the townsfolk and the lawmen of Four Corners. On two further occasions she was needed to help with trouble. Her skills with a gun were becoming as common place as the seven men who protected the town.
Yet no one suspected her of being anything other than the man she portrayed. At least she hoped no one suspected.
END OCT Saturday Night
One Saturday evening in late October, Chris came up to her in the saloon, she had just helped Ezra clean out a couple of young upstarts who had drifted into town mid week expecting to find an open town to fleece by cheating at cards. The two of them had not needed to cheat and had come away clean and healthy by more than $20 each.
"What can I do for ya Mr Larabee?" It tickled her to see the look in Ezra's face when she mimicked the way he spoke.
"I need your help with something, if I can." Curious she stood and walked with him to the bar. Collecting a beer she turned and waited for him to tell the rest.
"I need someone to go with Ezra to pick up some papers from Ridge City. Me, Tanner and Josiah have to go escort some prisoners for the Judge won't be back till Thursday next week. Nathan has to stay in town due to that Windell woman about to give birth and well, Buck and JD as you know hightailed it out of town yesterday when Millie's Father took a dislike to Buck's advances." He looked at her with an almost desperate plea in his eye.
"Why does Ezra need help to get papers, sounds like an easy enough job to me?"
"Ordinarily he wouldn't but, well you may not know this but lately whenever Ezra has gone out alone he's gotten himself into trouble of one kind or another. I was just hopin' that if you went with him you may be able to keep him from trouble."
It sounded like a great chance to make a good impression, but that little voice in the back of her head started to nag telling her about the risks involved being alone with Ezra, not to mention the need to keep up the front of being a man.
"Well I don't know, I'm expectin' the delivery of ma horses any time soon."
"I'll leave word for Buck and JD to explain to your men if they get here before your back. I really could do with the help." She began to feel embarrassed, the man was almost begging. Surely Ezra wasn't as hopeless in these situations as he was making out.
"Ok, Ok, when do we start?" She turned and looked over at Ezra, he was gazing curiously at the two of them wondering what they were up to.
"As soon as I've spoken to Ezra, tomorrow morning would be great. You should be back by Friday at the latest. Don't worry," he added as she started to protest. "I'll make sure the boys look over your place a couple of times to make sure nothing is out of place OK?"
Sunday Nov 1st
They had been riding for nearly four hours before either of them said a word.
"That's a fine piece of animal flesh you have B J. May I ask how you came by him?" B J glanced over at Ezra and then with a smooth pat to Dudley's neck answered.
"Dudley was the first foal my Father ever gave me, I raised him, trained him and when my stock arrives I will be putting him to stud to breed more."
"How did you come by such an unusual and may I add very exquisite saddle, I don't think I have every seen the like, even in my home State of Georgia?"
"It was made from a design I gave the saddler, I decided that you could never have enough places to put a gun or a knife for that matter, it has proved fruitful in the past. I also thought that he could make it as comfortable as possible for myself and Dudley as I would be using it a great deal." She looked over at him feeling slightly uneasy, was this an interrogation. Had Chris Larabee told Ezra to question her?
"How come you're not riding your usual horse, what was his name?" She had noticed that morning but had not mentioned it. Normally, from what she had heard, Ezra was almost inseparable from his horse.
Ezra looked over at B J. "Chaucer, that's his name, Chaucer. He came down lame two days ago. An inflamed cannon bone so the liveryman said. With no qualified animal doctor to check him out I decided it would be best for him to rest up. I was therefore forced to part with good money for this flea bitten nag. I only hope it can get me there and back again."
B J laughed to herself; Ezra was certainly one to enjoy his comforts and to make sure all around him knew what his comforts were. From the first day of knowing him she had sensed that the man had a deeper meaning to him, that his friends did not truly know him.
They rode on into the early evening in silence, not strained silence but comfortable no need to talk silence. Ezra pulled up and pointed ahead to a series of shallow caves.
"We can camp there for the night, it's slightly off the straight path to Ridge City but it's the only decent shelter for miles. I've been here before there's a modicum of water in a shallow trough at the back of the cave; it fills up every time there's a storm. It's not particularly deep but we can light a fire with brush that grows around here. It should keep us warm enough tonight. If we start early tomorrow we can be in Ridge City by evening."
B J watched as Ezra spoke noticing the obvious hatred he had for the words 'starting early'. She had come to realise in the last few months that Ezra rarely woke before eleven am.
The difficulties of being out in the wilderness with Ezra had not been as bad as she had envisioned. Due to the colder nights now they did not remove clothing when they retired for sleep. The problem of how to relieve herself without notice was solved by the use of a hollow clay pipe she had found at the general store. She had trimmed it down so that it would fit her securely; she would then quietly hide it after use in her jacket inside pocket without notice.
MONDAY MORNING Nov 2nd
After the first night out on the prairie she was becoming uncomfortable with the bindings she used around her chest to hide her shape. There was nothing to be done for it, so she suffered in silence. What she wouldn't give for a hot relaxing bath right now.
She recalled the one and only time her Father had made her dress up, as a lady. Her Aunt Elizabeth was visiting from San Francisco and would have been appalled to find her niece Bettina Jane in anything other than the latest fashions. Those latest fashions had included a steel corset tied so tightly that she had been unable to take a deep breath for the five days her Aunt had visited. The day she left she had vowed never to wear one again. As the hours wore on the bindings round her chest resembled that corset more and more. She shifted in the saddle and moaned when a fold caught her skin.
"You Ok?" asked Ezra.
"Yeah, just aching from all the riding and that last lot of fence holes I dug out on Friday. I was hoping to get a long good soak in a bath Sunday but this little trip put paid to that."
"Digging fence holes, no work for a gentleman. When do your ranch hands arrive?"
"Hopefully within the next two weeks, barring any problems. They did have six mares with foal when they left, early pregnancies so that shouldn't hold them up." Ezra stopped his horse, took off his hat and wiped down his forehead with a handkerchief; he rubbed the inside of the sweatband and replaced his hat.
"This little trip hasn't put you behind has it, I mean in getting ready for the horses?" She looked over at him wishing she could remove her hat. Her hair had been the only thing she had not compromised on when changing her appearance to a man. She was still a woman and had great pride in the long tresses of naturally curly blonde hair that she had. Keeping it hidden under her hat was a constant nightmare. Pins and ribbons helped but never for long.
"Nah, the work on the corrals and stables is done, I was just finishing off the prairie and the markers around the cabin. If the men get there before I get back they can finish that."
Their business in town was completed by Tuesday afternoon; they both decided a good night's rest was in order. They would start back in the morning. Ezra sent a telegram to Four Corners that afternoon stating that they had the papers and would be back by Thursday night. "How come you need to telegram Chris, doesn't he trust you?"
"Well as to that I will not comment, but Mr Larabee does insist on knowing where his men are at all times. He feels more at ease that way. If there is one thing I have learned being around Mr Larabee it is that you keep the man nonchalant and propitious as often as possible. The alternative is..." he paused and looked at B J and shuddered. "Well let us just not go down that route shall we." The look on Ezra's face told B J that he had been down that route several times and had not liked the outcome.
After a hot bath and a night's rest in a soft bed, the two travellers were on their way back to Four Corners just after sun up. Ezra as usual hardly spoke a word until the sun was well up in the sky.
WEDNESDAY MIDDAY Nov 4th
He was slightly ahead of her to one side when suddenly his horse went down heavily. A split second later she heard the double boom of shots from a rifle.
Her own rifle was out of its scabbard within a moment trained on the direction the shots had come from, she fired three shots in rapid succession, hopefully that would keep their heads down long enough for her to check on Ezra. Hanging low in the saddle she shifted her gaze over to the still form of the horse and the moaning moving shape of the con man. He was alive at least. She would have to move soon in order to check his condition and to get him out of the line of fire. After a few seconds she slid the rifle back into the scabbard, removed her gun and dismounted slowly, she moved carefully to Ezra's side.
"Ezra, Ezra how bad are ya hit?" she knelt down and gently rolled him over. There had been no movement from the low hills where the shots had come from so she re holstered her gun. The bullet had hit him high in the right shoulder; she turned him gently to check his back. Damn it was still in there. She would have to get it out. But not here, it was too open, too exposed to trouble. The cave, she would have to get him to the cave they had shared on the trip down. She reached into her saddlebag and took out a heavy handkerchief she always carried; she rolled it and pressed it into the wound. Ezra moaned and tried to move away from the pain.
"Ezra, you need to stand, can you do that?" he opened pain filled eyes and nodded slowly to her. "I need to get you on my horse, we have to get out of here now."
"Ok, I - I'll try, not sure I'll be much help to ya." His slurred speech and frequent gasps were a testament to the pain he was in. After what seemed like hours of struggle she was finally on the horse with Ezra slumped in front of her. At first Dudley resisted the extra weight but after a moment of coaxing he turned in the direction she wanted to go.
Several times she had to stop to give Ezra water from her canteen. She had managed to briefly check Ezra's dead horse but the canteen had a hole in it where the first bullet had struck going straight through to the poor animals heart. So they were down to only one canteen and at least six hours of riding until they reached the cave.
She was not convinced they were alone. Whoever had shot Ezra would not give up until they were both dead. Her eyes were constantly scanning the horizon and their back trail. She saw dust rising in the distance on several occasions but could not be sure that it was just the wind.
By early evening B J knew she would have to get down from the horse, her arms and back were aching from having to hold Ezra and the reins and his body temperature had been rising steadily. She desperately needed to cool him down. He had better not die, she had too much she wanted to tell him. Things she wanted him to know.
By her reckoning the cave should only be another two maybe three hours ride away. With a resolute sigh she kicked Dudley to continue and gritted her teeth against the ache.
Just as it was starting to turn dark she noticed the outcropping of rocks ahead and the slight rise in the land, the cave was just behind the small hill, she urged Dudley into a faster walk, they both needed to get off the horse. Finally they reached the base of the small cave; she pulled Dudley to a stop and with a big sigh thought through her next moves.
She took her feet from out of the stirrups and swung her right leg behind her. Her thought had been to slide Ezra off the front of the saddle when she was on the ground. As she twisted to dismount, Ezra's now unconscious form toppled with her, she felt herself slipping but didn't have the strength to stop it. They landed on the hard ground with Ezra on top of her. When she tried to push him off a sharp pain went through her left side. She drew in a deep breath and instantly regretted it as the pain from what could only be a broken rib ripped through her body, she stayed there panting in short breaths to stop the dizziness that surrounded her. She would be no good to Ezra if she passed out, and would be unable to protect them from whoever had shot at them.
After what seemed an age the pain subsided enough for her to gently roll Ezra off her. She stood slowly and reached to the back of the saddle for the bedroll. As was natural to her she had reached with her left hand, the pain in moving her arm nearly toppled her over and would have done if she had not grabbed for the stirrup to steady herself. Being left-handed she did most things with her left hand. After a few minutes she tried again with her right hand.
Oh God she thought if there was to be any trouble from the hidden shooters she would not be able to do any accurate shooting, she was only a fair shot with her right hand and had never been able to hit much accurately with it. Ezra moaned and stirred at her feet, she turned to see his eyes open and looking at her. "Where are we?" he said, almost too faintly for her to hear. "What happened?" he gasped in pain as he moved.
B J turned from the horse to go to him but didn't get there. Her world turned black as what seemed like a fist struck her on the temple. Ezra watched as if in a dream as B J first moved toward him and then jerked, twisted and fell to the ground. The black hat suddenly went spinning off as the crack of a rifle shot was heard. A mass of blonde hair erupted from the hat. /Why did B J have so much hair, and so blonde?/
The sound of horses jolted Ezra out of his daze. Blind instinct took over as he twisted, reached for his gun and shot the two riders dead from their saddles before they could fire any more shots. Their frightened horses sped off into the distance and soon disappeared. He didn't seem to notice as the gun slipped from his fingers and dropped to the ground. It was much later before he realised how impossible that shot should have been. On the ground with a bullet in his right shoulder and a fever to boot, by any stretch of the imagination he should have been unable to move. An innate survival instinct that had saved his hide on numerous occasions had taken over. He was simply not ready to die yet.
He turned to see B J moving, her eyes opened and after a few seconds blinking and clearing her vision she unsteadily got to her feet. "Come on Ezra, we need to get you in that cave, we need the water and a fire before long." She hadn't realised that her hat was gone, she moved on shear will power, the waves of dizziness passing over her as she helped Ezra to stand.
"B J, what... I... ahh that hurts, easy would ya. Are you...?" Ezra continued to glance up at her as they moved slowly and painfully into the cave.
After she had settled him in she returned to Dudley and led him slowly into the back of the cave. She had noticed it was just high enough to accommodate him. It would be safer for them both to have the horse close, and it would add extra warmth to the cave when it got dark. She removed the bedroll and the canteen and placed them next to Ezra. She then slid out the rifle from its scabbard re loaded it and placed it on the ground. By now her head was throbbing unmercifully and her side stabbed her every move she made. She had to remove the saddle before she could stop; it would make Ezra more comfortable if he could rest against it.
She turned and looked at Ezra for a moment, his eyes were closed and his face was red and sweaty. As soon as the saddle was off she would need to get his temperature down. She knew enough about medicine to know that a fever could kill. She turned back to Dudley and proceeded to undo the girth, she pulled on the saddle but was not prepared for how weak she was and felt herself fall backwards as the saddle slipped from Dudley's back and fell on top of her. Any other time or place she would have laughed at herself for getting into such a predicament, but now she gasped as a new added pain joined in with the chorus of other aches and pains her body had suffered. She pushed the saddle away from her and with a grunt of pain as her broken rib protested moved it over to where Ezra lay. She gently lifted his head and awkwardly pushed the saddle in under him so that his head and shoulders rested on the side.
She gave herself only a few moments rest before getting together the makings for a fire; she found some rocks, made a ring and then set too lighting the brush. After five minutes the fire was blazing nicely. She reached to the left rear of her saddle and withdrew the long hunting knife she kept there. She placed it in the centre of the fire; next she untied Ezra's neckerchief and soaked it in the pool of water from the back of the cave. She spent upwards of an hour cooling his neck, shoulders and upper chest. She cleaned out the wound and using the sterile hot knife probed and found the bullet. After removing it she again cleaned the wound and bandaged it using the only wrappings she had, some of those from around her chest.
By this time she was feeling warm herself, she was out of breath and her head was now pounding along to the beat of her heart. Every breath and every small move brought new pain. She covered Ezra with the blanket and laid down next to him in the hope that a little rest would ease the pain in her head at least. She reached up to his head and brushing a stray lock from his fevered brow whispered into his ear. "Don't die Ezra, I love you." At some point she drifted off to sleep.
Back at Four Corners no one was any the wiser as to the predicament Ezra and B J had found themselves. Buck had received the telegram sent by Ezra so was not expecting them back until Thursday evening.
JD had managed to calm Millie's Father so he and Buck had come back into town. They had been out that day to check on B J's Ranch. It was beginning to look like something. They had both seen the place about 6 month's prior and had noted how run down and busted up the place looked. Buck noted how much work B J had done on his own.
Mid week was usually pretty quiet at Four Corners and with Chris, Vin and Josiah not expected back until Thursday afternoon, the place almost seemed empty.
The only interesting thing of note that had happened was the arrival on the stagecoach of a gentleman that almost topped Ezra as far as rich fancy clothing went. He was an elder gentleman maybe in his early to late fifties and had two younger more plainly dressed men with him. At first glance Buck could tell that those two were gun hands, possibly hired protection for the obviously rich man.
The gentleman made his way to the hotel, checked in and disappeared to a room. The two hands split up, one stayed in the hotel lobby and the other went to the saloon.
As was expected, Buck checked the register for the man's name. Mr Jethro Rawlins from New Orleans. He made a mental note of his name, tipped his hat at the man sat in the foyer and left to find JD. He was getting hungry it was close to suppertime and Inez was serving chicken pie tonight. He also had a late date with a certain young woman.
THURSDAY MORNING Nov 5th
The next morning JD was walking across to the jailhouse when the liveryman called to him. "Yeah Tiny what can I do for ya?"
"I thought you might want to come and take a look at somethin' for me. This morning when I opened up I found two saddled horses stood out front, not tied just stood there. Looks to me like they turned up late last night, they're all lathered up and one of the saddles has blood on it."
At the word blood JD turned and instantly marched with the older man down to the livery. Upon arrival he checked over the two horses, he had not seen them before, so was much relieved. At first he had feared that one or more of his friends had come across trouble. A search through the saddlebags revealed a telegram. It read:[left four corners Sunday] stop [arrive by Tuesday deal with them both] stop [boss arrives Wednesday] stop
JD puzzled over what was written, he turned and told Tiny to clean up the horses and stable them and then left to find Buck. At this hour in the morning Buck would still be in bed. The problem was he could well have a lady friend with him. It was never the same one for long and JD had given up trying to understand his friends need for so much female companionship. He had described it once as a gift a sort of animal magnetism. The ladies could not resist him he said.
He knocked roughly on Buck's door, put his ear to the wood and listened. He heard a sharp intake of breath, a grunt and a rustle of sheets.
"WHAT?" came back a loud disgruntled voice.
"Buck it's JD I need to speak with you. Now."
"I'm a little occupied at present my friend, can't it wait?" he heard a woman's voice through the door.
"No I don't think it can Buck, I think there's trouble."
"What do you mean you think, there either is or there ain't, which is it?" the woman's muffled voice was sounding more and more strained.
"I don't know, you need to see this Buck, I'm serious."
"Ok, Ok I'll be out shortly, wait downstairs I'll be there as soon as I can." JD turned and walked down the hallway and then the stairs. He was stood out on the porch for ten minutes before a ruffled looking Buck followed by an even more ruffled looking Millie exited the building.
JD stood with his mouth agape firstly at Millie and then at the sheepish looking womaniser. "Buck, how could you. We only just finished calming her Father down two days ago, he already expects you round there this weekend to paint the front of the house, what are you gonna promise him this time if he finds out your still messin' with Millie?"
"I know, I know, she's just... I mean... well... I can't help it. I think I love her."
"That's what you said about Suzanna two weeks ago and Bethany the month before that."
"Yeah well, anyway what was so urgent?" JD chuckled; Buck couldn't change the subject fast enough. He showed him the telegram he had found in the saddlebags. He related everything the livery owner had told him.
"Let's head on down to the telegraph office shall we, see if we can't clear this little mystery up." All thought of Millie had vanished from his mind as they marched down the street. Someone was in trouble and they needed to find out who.
At first the telegraphist did not want to help, quoting rules and regulations about privacy and that he could lose his job. When Buck pulled his gun and placed it gently on the counter he became instantly co-operative.
"Let me see, yes that message was sent on Monday morning."
"Where to?" Buck fingered the gun almost absent-mindedly. The clerk gulped and checked his notes. "It was sent to Ridge City office, they confirmed receipt."
Buck and JD exchanged glances; almost wishing they were not thinking the same thing. "Who sent the message, what was his name?" The clerk started to protest but this time Buck picked up the gun, cocked it and aimed it right between the small mans eyes. "I ain't arguing with ya, now tell me."
Seconds later Buck was headed toward the hotel at a rate of knots that JD found hard to keep up with. At the counter he reached over and grabbed the register ignoring the protest of the clerk behind the desk. He scanned the names, found the one he was looking for and turned and headed for the room. Without even knocking he took his gun out and kicked in the door. Before the half-asleep man could even reach for his gun Buck was on top of him with the barrel of his gun almost down his throat. He shoved the telegram into his face and in a low menacing voice asked, "Who was this meant for, who's the target?" The man's eyes darted from side to side; he gulped realising the situation he was in.
" Ezra Standish and any one else with him. Look mister I was only paid to send the telegram that was all."
"JD help me throw this piece of trash in jail." JD took the handcuffs out of his waistcoat pocket; Buck pulled the man from the bed and pushed his arms behind him. He snapped the cuffs on him and led him down the hall and across the street to the jail. All the while the man was complaining about having no clothes or boots on. It was a cold morning and his long johns did not afford much protection.
After locking the door to the cell, JD stepped outside to find Buck waiting on the porch. He was looking at the telegram again. "I wonder who the Boss is, says here he arrives Wednesday that was yesterday?" He pondered it for a moment and then turned to JD. "We'll have to worry about that later, for now you hightail it up the trail and catch Chris, he shouldn't be too far out, he's due back today, then head up towards Ridge City. I'm gonna start out now, hopefully I'll cross their path before anything happens. Have ya seen Nathan?"
"Yeah he's back at the clinic, Mrs Windell gave birth late last night, healthy boy by all accounts." JD turned to go he hesitated and added, "Do ya want me ta get him? There may be trouble, ya could use his help." Buck thought for a second.
"Yeah, go get him, if there has been trouble we may need him."
An hour later all three were riding, JD to fetch Chris and the others, Buck and Nathan to head off any trouble, if they could, before it started.
Thursday Morning at the Cave
Ezra awoke slowly, listening to the sounds around him before he moved or opened his eyes. He always woke up this way, mainly to gauge any trouble around him, usually it was because he hated mornings. On this occasion it was to give himself time to figure out where he was and try to remember how he had got there.
It all came back to him in a flash. Falling from the saddle, no wait he was shot from the saddle, snippets of moments riding in front of B J. Pain, he remembered pain, a lot of it. His eyes darted around him as he suddenly remembered seeing B J hit and his hat flying off and... all that hair.
He turned his head to see B J lying on his side, at first glance he could see that a bullet had grazed a furrow along his left temple. Blood was still slowly trickling down his face, running across his eyes and nose. That meant that he had been lying like that for a while. On second glance he noticed how laboured B J's breathing was.
With this he forgot his own troubles and moved gingerly, hissing at the pain in his shoulder to reach B J's side. Reaching for the handkerchief he began by cleaning the blood away from his face. As he continued to clean he began to notice that the shadow on his face was not stubble growing through, it was powder of some sort. When all remnants of blood, dust and powder had been removed the face it revealed was remarkable.
Again noticing the laboured breathing, Ezra began to undo the jacket and the shirt, he wondered at what all the binding was around his chest, had he been hurt and bandaged himself. Gently he began to undo the wrappings; he would need to check any wounds in order to ascertain why his breathing was so bad.
As the last of the wrappings came off Ezra rocked back on his heals. He was starring almost in shock for what seemed like an age. He shook himself suddenly realising what he was doing and gently reached for the edges of the shirt and pulled them together fastening it down the full length. That done he began to feel with both hands down either side of the ribcage. He stopped when B J let out a cry of pain and lifted the edge of the shirt just high enough to see the area that was painful. The whole left side of the body was covered in black and blue bruises but what worried him the most was a small area that was swollen and almost red. He again probed as gently as he could around that area; B J's breathing became even more erratic. He reached down and listened to both sides of her chest. He sat up and took a deep breath, the lack of sounds from the left side confirmed to Ezra what he had feared. The lung had been punctured and it was possibly filling with blood from the injury, and if B J didn't get medical attention soon then she would die.
Taking the bindings he slowly began to wrap the wounded ribcage, he wasn't sure if this would aggravate the lung injury, but he knew that if he did not keep the broken bone as still as possible it could make things worse.
Given all that he had discovered in the last thirty minutes, plus their present condition and the situation they were in, Ezra felt remarkably calm. He felt completely in control of the situation. His shoulder still pained him when he moved and he knew he still had a fever, but his mind was remarkably clear.
With the head wound, broken rib and punctured lung, B J's condition was much worse than his, her temperature was rising quickly as well.
Firstly he fed the fire until a healthy warmth filled the small cave; he then began to cool her down using the handkerchief. He vaguely remembered her doing the same for him when his fever peaked. After more than an hour she began to stir, fighting a bad dream she mumbled and called out names, she kept calling to her Mother not to go, she then began to mumble about someone called James, asking where he was. Ezra reached up to B J's face, "Come on, wake up, it's alright, your safe, you can wake up now." After a few seconds B J's eyes flickered open, it took a few moments to focus on the face hovering over her.
"What happened? Ezra your OK?" she looked at him, shocked to see he was up and around.
"I'm Ok what about you?"
"I... my head hurts, I can't get my breath, damn... how tight did.... You tie that thing round... me?" She spoke in short gasps trying to catch a breath between words. "Ezra?" she looked up at him suddenly realising where the bindings around her ribs had come from.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance MISS Roslin, or is that not your real name?" he gave her a stern look and added, "What by chance does B J stand for, if I may be so bold?"
She let out a big sigh, almost relieved that he knew. She hadn't realised how much of a weight would be released from her shoulders now she no longer had to keep up the pretence. "Bettina, Bettina Jane, and yes it is my real name." She relaxed back onto the saddle; startled momentarily as she had not realised she was leaning on it. Within moments her eyes closed and she fell into a fevered deep sleep.
Ezra stared at the face he had come to know over the last few months, he began to put together the feelings he had had over that time and had realised that deep down his body had always known she was a woman. He had berated himself on many an occasion, thinking there was something wrong with him. Hoping it was just the lack of female companionship he had endured. None of the women in town had suited him, and the few that he had liked or even thought he had loved had passed beyond his reach. He recalled holding B J in his arms the night she had saved his life. The bullet graze that had put her there was only minor but he had felt an overwhelming need to protect him. Her. It was going to take some getting used to calling B J Her.
He continued to bathe her face and neck, a small voice in the back of his mind warned him that the water in the trough was running out, but he pushed it aside as he continued to analyse his feelings for this woman.
JD had been riding hard for three hours when he came upon Chris, Vin and Josiah. He filled them in on everything that had happened and told them that Buck and Nathan had started out for Ridge City. "We can cut four maybe five hours from the trip by going over this direction Chris." Vin pointed to a more northerly route; it cut up over a small range of hills and then came down near to the trail coming up from Four Corners. "From here we can be in Ridge City by tonight."
Buck and Nathan rode the trail from Four Corners in silence. Their horses moved at a steady gait, they did not want to miss any signs that would help them find Ezra and B J. "This is hopeless Nate, any sign there might have been will be gone now, it's been nearly four days since they passed this way. I think we should just head on up to Ridge City and then back track from there. We know they made it that far cause we got that telegram from Ezra."
Nathan looked around him before nodding to Buck. "Yeah you're right, come on lets push it." They both pushed their horses into a fast lope, not wanting to go all out in fear of the horses not making it.
It had been dark for an hour when the four riders made their way into town. First they headed for the sheriff's office, after speaking with him for only five minutes they came out. The sheriff in this town did not keep himself apprised of all the goings on. He had no idea that Ezra or B J had even been in his town.
For the next two hours the group split up and searched the town, they met up at the saloon and all reported that although the two had been seen they had also been seen leaving town by the livery owner who had stabled their horses overnight. Vin turned to the blonde haired man dressed in black. "Chris, I think we should head out of town now and maybe camp about 12 miles out." Chris began to protest, he did not want to camp at all until he had found them. "Listen Chris," insisted Vin. "They can't wander off the trail until they get out of the Whitley Pass, there it splits to go three ways, one of em bein' Four Corners. If we camp just outside the mouth of the pass, come first light I may be able to pick up some kind of tracks. I can't do nothin' in the dark 'cept lose em." Chris nodded in defeat. They grabbed some supplies, filled their canteens and headed out of town.
FRIDAY MORNING Nov 6th
Ezra opened his eyes slowly, taking in his surroundings, he had not realised he had fallen asleep. His right hand was resting on B J's arm. When he moved, his shoulder woke up and pain assaulted him. The cave began to swim before his eyes. He lay with his eyes closed for several minutes before trying to move again. His right arm felt numb and heavy, he glanced over at his shoulder and did not like what he saw. Probing with his left hand the fingers came away sticky. It wasn't blood totally; it was a mixture with a white thick substance. "Oh great, an infection. That's all I need." He wiped his hand on his trousers and then felt his forehead. "Oh good, the fevers back as well." He laughed out loud, marvelling at his good fortune.
B J's condition hadn't improved, in fact it had gotten worse, the fever was even higher and her breathing was very ragged. He knew he would have to get help or she could die. All his movements were slow and pain filled, he felt like he was walking through mud. The air around him kept shifting causing him to stop and reach out to steady himself. He got the canteen eventually and filled it with as much water from the trough as he could. It was almost gone. He placed it next to B J, covered her with the bedroll and left the cave. His heart wrenched at the thought of leaving her alone but he knew he had to get help.
He led the big Appaloosa out and finding a convenient mound of rocks to help him, climbed onto the back of the animal. He held on tightly leaning over Dudley's neck as a wave of dizziness and a sudden feeling of nausea overtook him. With no saddle or stirrups to keep him on the horse's back he expected to fall at any moment. After a few moments he turned the animal's head and headed towards Four Corners.
It took nearly four hours before he was back on the main trail, he had tried to move faster but the pain it caused to his shoulder was too much to bear, now he was simply slung over the horses neck barely awake. Dudley not feeling any guidance from the strange rider plodded along the trail, following where other horses had gone before. It wasn't long before the unresponsive rider slipped from his back landing heavily on its shoulder and lay in a heap not moving. Dudley remained close by, gently nudging the fallen body. There was no movement.
Buck and Nathan were riding at a steady gait. At this speed they would reach Ridge City in eight maybe nine hours. They had camped briefly when it had become too dark to travel safely, but were up and moving at first light. As they came up from a small ravine Buck stopped suddenly. "Nathan, look. Ain't that B J's horse?" He was pointing ahead.
"Yeah I think it is, come on lets go." They both spurred their horses into a gallop and as they neared they noticed the prone body on the ground next to the horse. As if it was possible they urged their mounts to greater speed. Before the horses stopped Buck had slid of his at the last moment and was on the ground. He gently turned the body and with an audible sigh of relief was rewarded with a loud moan from Ezra's still unconscious form. He was alive.
The relief was instantly replaced by concern as he saw the now bloody bandage around Ezra's right shoulder. "Nathan he's in a bad way, can ya help him?"
"Let me in there Buck, let me see." Buck reluctantly released his friend gently and moved back out of the way. Nathan moved in and started to undo the wrappings around the bleeding wound. He hissed as he saw the infection, he didn't need to feel Ezra's brow to know that he had a fever, he could feel it through his clothes, coming in waves off his body.
The sound of horses caught their attention. They instantly had their guns out to defend their fallen friend if necessary. "Ease up partner, it's only us." That was Vin's voice. He had been slightly ahead of the others and had seen Buck standing next to the horses as he came over the brow of a hill. Moments later Chris, Josiah and JD joined them. All of them dismounted and crowded round Nathan who was working feverishly trying to stop the bleeding and to clean the wound of infection.
"Nathan, how is he?" There was a concerned tone to Chris' voice that only emerged when one of them had been hurt. He was getting tired of watching his men suffer and constantly berated himself about being unable to stop it. Ezra had had more than his fair share in the last year of wounds and injuries, two bullets that Chris recalled had been meant for him. Why did this man put himself in harms way? He didn't have to prove anything. Yet he seemed to look for ways to show his compatriots, as he would put it, that he was capable of holding up his end of the deal, to protect and serve them and the town. The same feeling of dread had passed through him when they had found Ezra's dead horse further up the trail.
"We got to get him back to town now Chris, he's not only got an infected bullet wound and a fever but I just noticed he has a broken right collar bone as well. He must have done that when he fell off Dudley." He turned to Vin. "Did you buy that swatch of material you promised for Ms Nettie?" Vin quickly rooted in his saddlebag and pulled out about three metres of pale blue cotton. He handed it to Nathan.
"Give me a hand Vin, hold him up and hold his right arm close to his body. That's right, I'm gonna have to wrap his arm tight to his body to keep the shoulder still". Ezra began to stir and groan in pain as he was moved. "Hurry we need to get this done before he wakes up, it's gonna hurt like hell moving his arm." It took nearly ten minutes for them to finish wrapping Ezra up. Chris and Buck had helped to hold Ezra still as he became more lucid and squirmed in pain. By the time they were finished he was fully conscious. Well as fully as he could be with a fever.
"Would you gentlemen... mind telling me why you have cocooned me... in this manner, I can hardly move my arm at all." At this he tried to move and very nearly passed out from the pain. "Okay... so now I know why." He looked up at Nathan with quizzical eyes. "Have I dislocated my shoulder again?" Vin pressed a canteen to his lips, pulling it away before the injured man could drink too much.
"You broke your collar bone Ez when you fell off Dudley." A pained expression crossed Ezra's face.
"I have never... fallen off a horse in my life sir... and I assure you that is not what happened, I merely attempted to dismount the animal... when it moved. I did not fall off." Vin had to smile at this, even in as much pain as he undoubtedly was he still kept up the demeanour of the southerly gentleman. "Where's B J?" a panicked look suddenly crossed Ezra's face as he realised that she was not there. He began to struggle against the hands of his friends. "Chris you need to find B J... hurt... badly." Ezra slumped back into Vin's arms; Nathan quickly checked him over and confirmed to the worried men around him that he had only passed out.
"I need to get him back to town now. Josiah help me get him up." Gently between the two of them they managed to get Ezra seated in front of Nathan on his horse.
"Buck, you and JD go back with Nathan to Four Corners, he's gonna need your help with Ezra when ya get back, plus I don't like leaving the town wide open for too long." He turned to Vin after watching the four men ride off slowly. "Can ya back track Dudley to find out where B J is?" Vin walked over to the large Appaloosa and lifted each of his feet in turn examining the shoes.
"Sure no problem, large hoof like this it'll be easy to spot." Josiah was on his horse in a moment.
"Come on let's go then, Ezra said she was hurt." Chris turned and stared at Josiah.
"She, what do ya mean She?"
"You mean you hadn't realised, well I suppose not, the way she dresses and all." Josiah turned his horse to follow Vin.
"Hadn't realised what Josiah?" Chris caught up with him, grabbing him by the arm.
"B J is a woman Chris, I knew that from the first time I saw her, confirmed it after she came to the church that first Sunday. Oh she didn't tell me and I never let on. After all it's her business if that's the way she want's to live."
"Are you telling me that I put a woman's life in jeopardy by asking her to go on this trip?" Chris looked down at his hands, off into the distance anywhere except at Josiah. The feelings of guilt were rising fast and he couldn't put them down. Josiah grabbed Chris' arm and pulled him around.
"It ain't your fault, she chose to go, she's been living this way for the last five years or more ever since her Father died." Chris looked up at Josiah in astonishment. "Yeah Chris, didn't ya wonder what we talked about all that time in church."
They continued the journey in silence. Josiah held on tightly to the Appaloosa's reins, Vin was ahead of them scanning the ground moving forward all the time. Chris brought up the rear guilt chewing up his insides, anger increasing at himself for not noticing, Josiah for not telling and B J for well, he would find a reason to be angry at B J later after they had found her.
Vin pulled up his horse and turned in the saddle. "I think I know where they were, for once Ezra was thinking straight. Do you remember that outcropping of hills with shallow caves? We stayed there over night a few times when we was surveying the land round here last spring Chris." A look of sudden realisation crossed Chris' face.
"Yeah I remember, if we travel fast we can be there by nightfall, come on lets go." All three of them spurred their mounts to a gallop. The need to get to B J was urgent in all of them.
Jethro Rawlins stood in front of the Ritz Hotel; he was gently puffing on a large cigar and surveying the dark empty street. Light poured out onto the boardwalk from the Clarion newspaper office and from the various saloons, hotels and restaurants, but all other buildings were dark and closed. This was a small dusty nothing town as far as he was concerned, but he would bide his time until his business was finished. Twice now his subordinates had reported back to him whilst still in New Orleans that their target had been missed. Due to these errors he had decided to blanket hire men of dubious character from the various towns around this small backward hamlet to complete the task, should they be the one to finally kill his target then they would get $1000. He had then decided that he would oversee the completion of his plans himself.
Eight years previously a young upstart from Georgia had duped him. A man who had purported to be a gentleman had involved him in a plan to make a great deal of money with only a relatively small investment. By the time he had realised he had been conned the man in question and his money had disappeared. He had tried for over a year to trace him to no avail, when quite by chance in early June he had seen a pulp magazine showing a group of seven men on the cover. It was a cheap dime novel about the west; the story had not interested him, sensationalist fantasies told by a writer who craved excitement no doubt. It was the depictions of the seven men on the cover that caught his eye, specifically the smart looking one in the rich clothes.
He had found the con man, hiding out in a town called Four Corners just north of Mexico. It did not take long for him to put together a group of men who would search him out and finally kill him. He had specified to these men that he did not want this Ezra Standish killed immediately, he wanted to extend his pain, make him pay for the wrong he had done him.
Jethro Rawlins himself was not an honest man; he had come by his fortune in much the same way as Ezra had taken him. He had then built his fortune further with a great deal of political investment and a little blackmail when necessary. The money itself was not the issue; he had lost more than that in one night of drinking and revelling. It was the fact that he, a renowned con man had been taken in so easily by such a young player. The embarrassment had been more than he was willing to let slide.
Quite by chance the realisation of his plans had taken a turn for the better. The day before he was due to catch the stage to this backwoods town, one of the many young men that surrounded him, had been talking about a cousin of his who was due to inherit a fortune at the end of the year. From the young mans talk the inheritance was most impressive, certainly larger than the total sum of his wealth at that time. He had mostly ignored the boy's ramblings until the mention of Four Corners had come up. At that point, with his interest peaked he had listened intently.
By all accounts one of the ranch hands on his uncles estate in New York had been in constant contact with him about all that was happening. He had been told about the impending move out west and the herding of some of the finest horses in New York to a new site near Four Corners. It would appear that the cousin due to inherit had plans to re locate there and continue in the Father's business of breeding horses. The part that interested him the most was that if this cousin did not for some reason survive, then the estate would be divided amongst any remaining relatives, the boy at that time was the only other relative. By questioning the boy further he had found out that Miss B J Roslin was due to turn twenty five in December, if due to some fatal accident she were not to survive that long then the boy would most likely inherit the lot. Apparently there had been a brother but he had not been heard of for more than sixteen years. It was assumed he had died whilst in the employ of the Army. In the two days he had suffered this town he had not come across any woman matching the young mans description. No doubt she would turn up sooner or later.
A commotion up the street caught his attention, a group of three riders, no three horses and four riders had ridden in to town and were heading steadily for the livery. As they passed him he instantly recognised the man being held in front of the black rider. Ezra Standish. So his employees had found him, and by the look of him had done a fine job of causing him pain. On second glance they may well have succeeded in killing him. The riders stopped at the livery and proceeded to take the wounded man up the stairs to the clinic. A plan began to form in Rawlins devious mind, a plan that would add suffering to the almost certainly doomed gambler. A plan that would ultimately ensure that Ezra Standish did not survive.
Chris, Vin and Josiah pulled their horses to a halt outside the caves; Vin immediately pointed to two bodies lying about 200 yards further up the trail. On inspection neither of them was B J. Ezra's Remington revolver was found in the dust forty yards away from the cave opening, B J's hat lay close by. Picking up the hat Vin noticed the blood inside the rim. The tracks they found confirmed that the two of them had managed to get into the cave.
The three men ran into the opening and were shocked by what they saw. Josiah was next to the prone figure in an instant. "She's alive, just. Her breathing's pretty bad." He leaned in closely to her chest, listening. "I'll bet she has a punctured lung, and that wound on her head is pretty deep, no doubt got a concussion as well." He continued to check her out while Chris soaked his bandanna with water and dribbled some on her lips, she had an almighty fever so he attempted to cool her down as much as he could.
He could not get over how different she looked. How had he missed it, looking at her now there was no doubt that she was a woman? He had never seen B J without the hat on so had never realised that so much hair was hidden beneath it. As he looked at her stricken features the guilt inside him was becoming almost unbearable. "We need to get her back to town fast, Josiah do ya think it's safe to move her?" The big man looked at him and then back to B J.
"I don't think we got much choice, if she stays here she'll die. There ain't no way we can put her on a horse though, that much movement will definitely kill her." At this Vin moved forward.
"There's some trees a little ways off, I could cut down some branches we could make a travois using our jackets, she could travel that way couldn't she?" Josiah nodded and turned back to tend B J as Chris and Vin left the cave. Thirty minutes later they returned with enough branches to put the travois together. It took them nearly an hour before it was ready. Josiah gently lifted B J, placed her on it and covered her with the bedroll. Chris retrieved the saddle and guns as well as the canteen, he saddled Dudley and then he and Vin lifted the ends of the travois and held them steady whilst Josiah tied them on tightly.
Vin turned his head at the sound of a moan, all three came to stand next to B J, her eyes were open and staring at them, she blinked a few times trying to bring her vision into focus. "It's OK B J your safe, we found you, your gonna be fine." Josiah's voice was low and soothing. Chris and Vin glanced at each other, surprised at how gentle the big mans voice was.
"Where's Ezra... He was here... a moment ago... where is... he, is he all right?" Her voice croaked and her breathing became more erratic as she struggled to rise to look around her.
"Rest easy girl, he's gonna be fine. He's with Nathan on his way back to town. He'll be waitin' for ya when we get back." Chris looked with concern at Josiah, they all secretly hoped that Ezra and B J would make it. They were both in a bad way.
It took them all night travelling slowly to get back, the sky was just starting to lighten when they spotted the town.
Saturday Morning Nov 7th
Nathan looked down at his sleeping patient; it had taken all night and a lot of work to clean the infected wound and to set Ezra's collarbone. The whole of his right side from shoulder down to waist including his arm was wrapped tightly. Nathan knew Ezra would hate not being able to use his arm but in order for the bone to heal correctly then it would have to remain still for at least two months if not more.
The door to the clinic burst open. "Nathan we found B J, Josiah's bringing her up now."
"Her! What do ya mean her?" he stepped back in surprise as the preacher carefully manoeuvred B J into the room and laid her gently on the spare cot. WOW he thought momentarily He is a Her.
Although Nathan had been very tired after fixing Ezra he worked without rest or respite for the next four hours cleaning up the bullet graze on the head and trying to get the fever down. In a moments hesitation he turned to Chris. "I gotta open her up, I have to try to remove the broken rib from her lung and repair it. If I don't she'll slowly drown as her lung fills up with blood". Chris and Vin both looked with utter shock at the healer; he had never had to open up anyone before.
"Will she survive?" Neither of them voiced their thoughts as to whether Nathan was capable of such an operation. The healer ignored the question.
"I need to get the room as clean as possible, all my instrument sterilised, I'll need someone to assist." Vin stepped forward.
"I'll help, I pulled enough bullets out of people."
"This ain't exactly like pulling bullets Vin, there'll be a lot of blood and I'll be cutting into her. I'll need your help to keep her asleep. I got some chloroform, came in with a shipment of supplies two weeks ago, it's tricky stuff but it's the only thing I got that will keep her out for long enough." A movement behind him caught his attention. He turned to look at Ezra who was peering through unfocused eyes at them. "Damn."
"Chris get Josiah, we need to move Ezra out of here he can go to his own room while I get this done. Stay with him and don't let him move." Moments later they began to clean the room and get the examining table and instruments ready. Once that was done Nathan pushed everyone except Vin out. "Are ya ready?" a suddenly sheepish looking Vin gulped and replied
"Yeah, I guess."
Over at the saloon, Josiah and Chris settled Ezra into his bed; he had remained awake the whole time cursing like they had never heard before. "I thought a gentleman never used language like that Ezra?" Chris was trying to lighten the mood a little, he knew the gambler had seen and heard what was about to take place and he wanted to take his mind off it. He also knew that he was in intense pain, and still fighting the infection. Nathan had said he would be for a while to come. Because laudanum made Ezra sick he had been given some of the herbs that relieved pain, they were not as effective but would help to take the edge off. All the moving around from the clinic to the saloon had woken up the fire going on in his shoulder, by the time he was laid in his own feather bed and between his clean soft sheets he was sweating like a stuck pig. Within moments of his head touching the pillow Ezra was asleep again.
Six hours later Buck came bursting through the door, he came to a skidding halt as he looked into the barrel of Chris' colt .45 Peacemaker. He gulped and then smirked. "Sorry Chris, Nathan's done he says time should tell but he thinks she's gonna be fine." A visible tension drained from the gunfighter's face and he let out a large sigh of relief.
"Well Ok, go back and tell Nathan we'll be over soon." Buck left and Chris turned to face Josiah and the bed. He was shocked to find Ezra awake. He was looking directly at Chris and with amazing clarity started to speak.
"Help me Chris, I need to see her." With that he began to move the sheets from his body. Josiah laid a gentle hand on his good shoulder and pushed him back, it was like pushing a child, there was no resistance.
"You're not goin' anywhere brother, Nate will skin us alive if you get up now." He backed away suddenly as Ezra's left hand came out from under the sheets holding a gun.
"I am going to see her, now help me or get outta my way." Chris looked at the gambler in astonishment, where the hell had that gun come from. He must have had it in the bed all the while. This man truly did not trust his life to anyone, he had never know a man to have so many guns.
"Back off Sanchez." The words came out in a vicious snarl, no hint of the southern gentleman could be heard in his voice. Chris had seen Ezra like this once before. His face had the look of a wounded animal cornered and extremely dangerous. He moved round the bed to stand in front of the preacher. He stopped dead in his tracks as the wounded man clicked back the hammer. "I mean it Chris, help me or move, I have to see her." Chris could hear the determination and the pleading in the man's voice, sweat stood out in beads on Ezra's face as the effort to hold the gun got harder and harder.
"All right Ezra, calm down we'll take ya to see her. Now put the gun down, we'll take ya, I promise." He reached forward and snatched the gun from Ezra's fingers as the gambler collapsed in a dead faint into his arms; he gently pushed Ezra back against the pillows. Both men visibly let out a sigh. Chris released the hammer and checked the gun. He looked up at Josiah in shock; the gun was fully loaded.
Chris kept his word to Ezra and two hours later when the gambler woke up again he and Josiah helped the injured man over to the clinic. It took them nearly an hour to get him there. They had to stop to allow Ezra to rest four times. He had insisted on walking himself, saying that it was his shoulder not his legs that were hurt. Needless to say the effort of moving nearly made the stubborn gambler pass out on several occasions on the short journey. JD had seen them coming and before Chris could tell him not to say anything to Nathan he had run upstairs to the clinic. Moments later the black healer burst out and stood at the top of the stairs.
"What the hell do you think your doin'?" The gunfighter inwardly cringed, if there was one thing he did not like to face that was an angry Nathan. He would rather face a bunch of hell raisers than a riled up Nathan.
Without much protest from Ezra, Josiah lifted him off his feet and carried him up the stairs to the clinic. He kept his eyes down away from the seething black man. "We didn't have much of a choice, he pulled a gun on us, if we hadn't helped him he would have tried on his own." Nathan glared at the three of them and then went to check on his patient. Josiah placed Ezra carefully by B J's bed. He stepped back but kept a hand on his shoulder should he be needed quickly. Ezra stared at B J for what seemed like an age. He looked up at Nathan. His pleading eyes asked the question.
"She'll be fine, it'll take a while but she'll heal." His hand shot up to Ezra as a wave of dizziness shook the gambler. "Which is more than I can say for you if you don't rest. Your body has had a hell of a shock Ezra, it needs to heal as well." Josiah guided the weak and trembling gambler to the spare cot. He laid him down and covered him with a blanket. Ezra was already unconscious. Nathan checked him over and turned to face Chris. "If he gets worse I'm blaming you, he's as weak as a kitten, you could have easily stopped him from coming over here."
"You didn't see him brother." Said Josiah; "He was ready to use that gun." Nathan turned to look at the large man.
"You mean he really pulled a gun on you?"
Chris headed for the door. He stopped and turned looking first at B J's still form and then at the injured man. With all the trouble that Ezra caused, he had somehow come to call this man friend. The man he had let down too many times, the man who had put himself in harms way to protect all of them. The man who had dropped his own barriers to call them friends.
He looked back at Nathan. He suddenly felt tired and old. "Yeah he did." That said he walked out.
During the next week the town of Four Corners started to fill up, at least that was the way it felt to Chris Larabee. The Tuesday afternoon saw B J's horses being driven into town, the men had been told to come there first, pick up supplies and any instructions from B J and then head out to the ranch. B J was still in no condition to speak to any one so it had fallen to Chris and Buck to explain the problem to the ranch hands. One of the men visited the telegraph office immediately, and then Buck took them out to the ranch on the Wednesday morning and was back in town by the late afternoon.
Three men disembarked from the stage on the Wednesday afternoon, Chris watched them intently, they wore nondescript clothes but their guns were worn low and tied down. He had seen their type before. He made sure all three were checked out and watched constantly. Two more riders with the same descriptions rode into town on the Thursday morning.
There were just too many new faces around for Chris' liking. Too many, for the six regulators to watch all the time. The southern gent that had been in town when Chris and the others had returned with B J was still there; he had been seen in most of the saloons that frequented main street, drinking, gambling and talking. It didn't take long for Chris to realise that most of the men this Mr Rawlins spoke to were those that had arrived in town only recently.
Wednesday Nov 11th
He headed to the clinic to speak to Ezra, a bad feeling had begun to niggle him and for some reason he thought that the still recovering gambler would be able to help. He opened the door quietly and walked in. Ezra was sat on a chair, blanket around his shoulders next to B J's bed. Nathan was stood in the corner talking to Vin. He walked over to the two men. "How's Ezra doing?" He glanced over at the still pale looking gambler.
"The fever broke last night, no signs of the infection returning, he's been sittin' in that chair since he woke up, won't move, refuses to eat or drink anything, I know he's concerned about B J but he needs to think about himself as well. If he doesn't eat he'll just get sick again."
"Is it alright if Vin and me take him out? We'll make sure he eats and drinks." Nathan pondered for a few moments and then nodded.
"Yeah, but no beer or whiskey, he needs milk or water, even coffee would be better than nothing." Chris turned and nodded at Vin. The two men moved as one over to their injured friend. Vin reached down, put his hand under Ezra's good arm and gently pulled.
"Come on Ezra we need to go for a walk, doc's got things to do, he don't need you hovering like a love sick child." Ezra started to protest but seeing the determined look in the two men's eyes realised he did not have the strength to fight them.
It took both men, one in front and one behind to help Ezra get down the two flights of stairs. Although his fever was now mostly gone he was still not well and was very weak. On two occasions they needed to stop to allow the wounded man time to catch his breath and keep his footing. At the bottom of the stairs Chris steered Ezra to a bench and sat him down. He could see a pained expression on the man's face and knew that the short trip had aggravated his shoulder. Vin glanced at Chris and then back to Ezra, "I'll get some coffee." He headed to the saloon and several minutes later came back with a steaming pot and three mugs.
"Ezra, I need to ask ya somthin' are you up to it?" Chris sat down next to him. Ezra nodded so he continued. "Do you remember the gunfight in the street a few months ago, when JD got hit in the side. B J was there and injured one of em?" Ezra took a few steadying breaths and then looked over at Chris, he thought for a few moments and then began nodding his head.
"Yes I recall, I believe that was the first day B J came to this fair town. I also recall that her being there probably saved not only my life but JD's as well." He gave Chris a questioning look. "Why?"
"The man B J winged had been paid a lot of money, so had the one you killed. He said it was some guy from New Orleans a fancy man, same kind of clothes you wear."
"Yes I remember, and I think I told you then that it could have been anybody." Ezra tipped his head back and closed his eyes, the pain was beginning to dissipate but a dull throb was replacing it, one that kept up with the pounding of some very angry hammers in his head. His eyes shot open again as Chris' hand grabbed his left arm.
"Think dammit, I know you're hurtin' but I need to know, do you have any idea who it might be." Vin grabbed Chris' arm and twisted him around.
"Leave him be, why is it so important, it was months ago?" Chris stood to face the tracker.
"Yeah it was months ago but how many times in those few months has Ezra been shot at, and now this happens comin' back from a simple job." He quietly whispered, "Is it a coincidence that a fancy dressed southerner has been in town this last week or more and according to Buck is from New Orleans." A look of deadly understanding crossed the tracker's face.
A noise caught their attention and they turned to see Ezra struggling to stand, Vin moved to his side instantly, Ezra reached out and grabbed his arm and carefully rose to his feet. "Just need to stand up for a while, move around a little. I've been in that most uncomfortable bed, if he can call it a bed, for too long." A big sigh was released from his lips as he stood and gently twisted his back. "I shall no doubt suffer from eternal back pain for the rest of my life." At that moment a man brushed by him catching his right arm. Ezra would have fallen from the pain had Chris not been there to catch him. Instantly Vin was at his side.
"Hey watch where you're goin' mister, can't you see this mans been hurt." It took all his will power to stop from shooting the guy. The man turned, mumbled an apology and then continued on his way, crossing the street just ahead. They eased Ezra back onto the bench and were immediately concerned by the sudden paleness of the gambler's face.
"I'll go fetch Nathan," said Vin
"No." The word came out sharp and clear. "I - I will be fine, he... just caught me off guard that is all." The two friends could see the difficulty with which Ezra spoke and the obvious pain etched around his face.
Chris glanced up, his angry eyes following the man that had bumped him, he watched as he stopped next to the Southern Gent he had just been talking about. A smile crossed the elderly mans face and after a moment he lifted his fingers and tipped his hat in much the same way he had seen Ezra do on many an occasion. He turned and calmly walked toward the saloon followed by three other men.
"That's the man you were talking about, wasn't it Chris." Vin had followed the gunfighter's eyes.
"Yeah and he just happened to be talking to the man that bumped Ezra, too many coincidences around here lately."
"I'll go and find Buck and JD, we'll go and have us a talk with this gent." Vin looked down at the pale Gambler and added "You OK to stay with Ezra?" Chris nodded.
"Excuse me!" Chris turned to look at the pale, sweating man slumped on the bench next to him.
"May I inquire as to what you two were whispering about?"
"NO, come on let's get you back to the clinic before you pass out."
"Fine but could you please send Josiah to see me, I need to speak to him about a private matter."
Thursday Nov 12th
The throbbing in her head was the first thing she notice, she lifted her arm to rub her temple and was immediately rewarded with a sharp pain down her left side. She heard someone groan and gasp and realised it had been her. A hand gently took her left arm and placed it back on the bed.
"Take it easy B J, it's going to hurt for a while." She instantly recognised Ezra's voice. It took a few moments to open her eyes and a few more to focus on the face hovering over her.
"Hello." She looked at him deeply noticing how drawn and pale the usually handsome face was. Her gaze took in the sling and the way it was held to his body. "Are you OK?" she asked him, vaguely recalling that she had asked him that before. She also noticed the gun belt tied to his left side. One thing she had begun to realise was that this man never went for long without a gun of some description near him.
"I'm OK are you OK?" A big smile lit up his face; her heart jumped and began to beat faster. Her breathing got suddenly quicker. "Hey calm down, your fine, everything's going to be fine. Wait here I'll get Nathan." Before he could move she grabbed his arm. He turned and looked at her, concern was all over his face.
"No wait, I'm fine honest, I need to tell you something first." She took a deep breath and cut it short when a knife like pain shot through her. She winced, closing her eyes. After a few seconds she opened them again and looked deeply into Ezra's beautiful green eyes. "I've never felt like this before Ezra, and no I don't mean the pain, although yeah, that sensation is pretty new. What I mean to say is, well, since the first time I saw you sitting at that table in the saloon, I've wanted to, awh hell Ezra I think I love you." He blinked, pulled back his head and turned to look around the room, as if he was checking to make sure no one else was there. He looked back at her with an expression she had not seen before; he smiled and said.
"I know." Quite unexpectedly he bent down and gave her a soft gentle kiss on the lips. "I need to get Nathan, I'll be back." He whispered and then was gone.
Mr Simmons sat quietly looking out of the window. It was pitch black out side and had been for the last four hours. The train continued to rumble on through the night deeper into the heart of the country, further away with every mile from civilisation. The boredom of the journey was relieved only by the infrequent stops the train made, mostly to take on water and fuel for the engine and to let the passengers off to eat and stretch their legs. Occasionally passengers would disembark at the end of their journey, but his was far from over. He still had another two days to go on this train and then a days travel on a stagecoach.
When they stopped in the morning he would send a message at the telegraph office to the sheriff of Four Corners, explaining the situation and warning him that Miss Roslin's life was most possibly in further danger. After the distressing news of her injury from the foreman delivering the horses, he had immediately made arrangements to travel out to complete the details of Mr James Roslin Sr.'s will. Certain details had still yet to be revealed to Bettina and they could only be done in person.
Several years ago some of his colleagues had come across information that had proved to him that a certain cousin who had fallen on bad times due to gambling had been inquiring about the will and estate. When Bettina Jane had voiced her intentions to travel the West as a man he had immediately realised that this would be a way to disguise that she was a woman and therefore protect her from her enemies. She had regularly reported to him her general whereabouts over the years and he had dutifully sent her money as she requested it. She never asked for more than her allowance and in most cases had used far less than she was allowed according to her Father's will.
What Miss Roslin did not know and indeed none of her family alive or dead had known was that her elder brother James Edward Roslin had not died sixteen years ago as had been reported. Yes he had been wounded and unable to remember who he was for six months, but when he had finally recovered he had contacted Mr Simmons to enquire of his family. On hearing about his Mothers death, and his assumed demise he had stated that he was not to be resurrected, he was to be kept informed as to the health of his Father and Sister but under no condition was Mr Simmons to reveal his whereabouts to them.
Over the years the two of them had kept in contact through letters and telegrams. Mr Roslin JR was now a Major in the US Army and had finally confirmed to the Lawyer, on hearing of his Father's death, that he had no intention of taking what Mr Simmons had said was his rightful inheritance. Bettina Jane had worked for it and was entitled to it. He had a family with the Army and everything he wanted. Just knowing that she was safe and well with a secure future made him happy.
Unfortunately the recent turn of events had forced Mr Simmons to contact Major Roslin and inform him of the final twist in the will, it was against all his instructions and broke several codes of ethics but he knew he had to protect his client any way he could. A return telegram on the morning he was to leave for Four Corners had confirmed that Major Roslin would meet him there, he would also come with a dozen men to help protect her until the wishes of the will were fulfilled.
Friday Nov 13th
JD barrelled his way through the bat wing doors of the saloon, he stopped only long enough to see where Chris was and then continued in a run, skidding to a halt into the outstretched arms of Buck.
"Whoa there tiger, what's the hurry?"
"Just got this telegram, Chris I need to talk to you now." He looked around him at all the unfamiliar faces and then back to Chris and Buck. "Not in here, outside." Without looking to see if the others followed him he turned and headed for the door.
"What is it JD, what's so all fired important?" Chris took the telegram as it was offered to him and read it. He looked up and then down to the words again and then handed it over to Buck for him to read. "Great, that's all we need." He looked over to the young sheriff. "JD get Vin and Josiah, we need to get B J out of here and somewhere safe and I think I know just the place."
"F I R E."
His head snapped up at the shout from down the street.
"FIRE IN THE LIVERY."
Without thinking all three men ran at full speed down to the stables. People were piling out from buildings all around him, some had buckets in there hands already. Before they got there they could see the smoke billowing out of the main door. Chris glanced up to the clinic that was above the stables and caught sight of a pair of legs hanging over the edge of the balcony. Within seconds he was up the stairs, he knelt down next to the still form. It was Nathan and from the look of him he had been hit from behind. There was a small cut and blood on the back of his head. He took out a handkerchief and pressed it against the wound.
"Buck, get up here it's Nathan." Buck rushed up the steps and with some help picked up the unconscious healer and carried him carefully down. By this time the smoke was getting thicker. Vin suddenly appeared at Chris' shoulders. "We need to get Ezra and B J out of there now." They both headed for the door to the clinic only slightly aware of the noise around them as the town folk fought the fire below.
Vin opened the door and was pushed back immediately by a billow of thick black smoke. Covering their noses with their jackets they got down on all fours and moved into the room. They could just make out the still form of Ezra in an ungainly heap on the floor. Vin rushed to him and none too gently scooped him into his arms and headed for the door. Chris moved to the bed that held B J and lifted the unconscious woman into his arms, he grabbed a blanket and threw it over her mostly to protect her from the smoke but also to hide her from the people below. The words in the telegram he had just read were still fresh in his mind.
Moments later they were all at the bottom of the stairs coughing, with eyes streaming from the smoke. The fire had been put out and the livery had been saved. None of the horses had been harmed as men had led them out of the burning building. Tiny was leaning against a water trough rubbing his neck. It appeared that he had also been hit over the head. Chris looked over to Buck who was helping Nathan up. He was awake and holding the cloth to the back of his head. As Nathan steadied himself he noticed his two patients lying in the street. With Buck's help he moved over to them and began to check them out. Within minutes he had forgotten his own wound and was shouting for water and other items to help revive his charges.
"Buck, Vin." Chris called the two men over to him, coughing due to the smoke he accepted the canteen that Vin offered him. "Get a wagon ready we're moving those two out of town, somewhere safe." Vin shot him a quizzical look. Chris passed him the slightly crumpled telegram. Without another word the Tracker turned and headed for the back of the livery. Five minutes later the two men returned with a hitched covered wagon.
"Where we taking 'em Chris?" The Tracker tore his eyes from the still unconscious form of his friend. Nathan was trying to stem the bleeding from the re-opened wound to the Southerners shoulder. A feeling of guilt washed over Vin. In his rush to get Ezra to safety he had not taken time to be gentle. Hell he hadn't had time. The building could have gone up in flames at any moment. He had reacted instinctively. He pushed the guilt aside realising that if he hadn't acted as quickly as he had then Ezra may well have died from smoke inhalation. He turned realising that Chris was speaking.
"Sorry Chris I missed that, what did ya say?"
"Yeah, I'm worried about them too. We need to get them out of town now. Not only is someone likely to be after B J, but I think someone is trying to kill Ezra. This fire kind of proves it to me. Nathan and Tiny were both hit over the head before it started. This was no accident. They just didn't count on this town pulling together and acting as quick as they did. That alone tells me that who ever is responsible don't know this town and its people very well." He turned to look at Buck. "You and Josiah get them two in the wagon." He turned back to face Vin. "You ride out and tell Nettie Wells what's happened and that we'll be needing her help for a while. I'll come out with the wagon and the others."
Chris looked around him trying to think if there was anything else he needed to do. Sometimes he hated being in charge. When things went wrong it always fell to him to come up with a plan or get one of his men out of trouble. He looked over as Josiah lifted B J carefully into the wagon. It always amazed him how the big man could be so gentle one minute and like a raging bull the next. He turned and headed towards the saloon; his mind going over the things he would need to do before they could head out of town.
Rawlins stood quietly across the street taking in everything that had happened. Yes it had been on his command that the fire be set. He had hoped that it would engulf the building but had also expected the fire to be put out. Either way it would cause extra suffering to the man inside the clinic. What he hadn't expected was the added bonus of finding his other quarry. So Miss Roslin had been posing as a man. No wonder he had been unable to find her. He had seen the long blonde hair hanging from beneath the blanket as the black clad Gunslinger had carried what he had initially thought was a man from the smoke filled clinic. His employees had informed him that a well-dressed man had been with Ezra Standish when he had arrived in Ridge City and was with him when he left. He had also been told that the man had been hurt badly when the failed ambush, in which two of his men had died, had been sprung outside of the town.
He watched intently as his two targets were placed in a wagon. His eyes followed the buckskin clad young man as he mounted a horse and rode at a gallop out of town. Now where might he be going, he thought. He knew there would be no opportunity for him to get to either of his two marks for a while, there were too many people around them. That large man looked like he could take on all his men without breaking a sweat. His eyes changed direction again and followed the man in black as he walked up the street towards the saloon. That one was going to be trouble. He had seen the way he had looked at him from across the street the previous day. He would need to take care of this gunslinger before his next attempt on Standish.
They had been travelling slowly for an hour when Ezra started to come around. Nathan's first indication was a sudden bout of coughing from the prone gambler. "Josiah, stop the wagon." Nathan was holding Ezra trying to keep his body still as he coughed up the smoke that had rendered him unconscious in the clinic. Chris pulled his horse up close to the wagon.
"How is he Nathan?" He handed the healer a canteen of water as Ezra's coughing fit subsided.
"I don't know Chris, it all depends on how much smoke he breathed in."
"I assure you...." Ezra coughed again; "I will be fine...." He continued to cough and splutter and was unable to finish what he was saying. His left hand came up and grasped Nathan's arm which was supporting him. The healer could feel the pain going through the gambler's body with each cough. He squeezed his eyes closed knowing there was nothing he could do except offer support and water when the coughing stopped. After what seemed an age the fit subsided and Ezra seemed to relax. Nathan almost jumped when the soft southern voice spoke.
"How's B J?" Nathan moved himself gently out from under the injured mans back and placed him back on the pillows. He looked over to the still sleeping form next to Ezra. She had not moved or woken up since placing her in the wagon and truth be told he was getting worried that the smoke may have caused further damage to the already injured lung. He had monitored her closely and had not noticed any added difficulty in her breathing.
"She'll be fine, she's asleep and I don't think there will be any lasting affects from the smoke." He only half believed what he said himself but he didn't see any reason in upsetting or worrying Ezra any more than he was already. He could see the attachment growing inside the usually calm, placid faced gambler. "She was asleep when the smoke hit so she didn't breath in as much as you. I'm more worried about you than her at this moment."
"I'm... fine Mr Jackson," to prove it to them and himself he gingerly pushed himself with his good arm into a sitting position. The movement obviously caused him pain and it took all of Nathan's will power to stop from helping. He knew from past experience how stubborn Ezra could be especially when he was hurt. "Oh and by the way." His gaze shifted to the black clad man on the horse at the rear of the wagon. "Why are we in a wagon and where are we going?" Chris looked to Nathan who nodded his head several times. Yes it was time he voiced his concerns to Ezra and told him about the telegram.
Ezra sat in stunned silence as Chris Larabee reeled off his suspicions. When he had finished telling him about the threat to B J he had laid there looking up at the white canvas above him. Chris noticed how the fingers on Ezra's left hand balled into a fist and then opened and balled again almost unconsciously. He recalled that moment in Ezra's room back in town when he had faced that same hand holding a cocked gun. He knew then without a doubt how much the gambler was in love with the woman laid next to him. He felt a pang of envy immediately followed by relief that this man who no one seemed to be able to get close to was actually closer to this one person than any of the six lawmen were likely to get. He had known that kind of love with Sarah and vowed then that he would do all he could to ensure no one got in the way of his friend exploring that love.
"Chris, we got trouble." Josiah reached for his Winchester rifle that was on the seat next to him; he looked over at Chris as he moved up to him on his horse. "Over yonder to our left, I saw dust." Chris looked around him and pointed ahead.
"Let's get into those rocks up ahead, better cover there." Josiah lifted the reins and slapped them to get the horses moving. "Nathan, keep your head down, I think we've got company, it's gonna' get bumpy for a while we need to get to cover." Josiah urged the horses into a fast trot and then a lope, as they began to move faster, the first shots from a rifle were heard. He turned his head just in time to see Chris' horse stumble, the gunslinger went down in a cloud of dust. Josiah pulled up on the reins and jumped down from the wagon. Snatching his rifle he turned and ran back to the prone figure letting off two shots as he did so. He said a quick prayer of thanks when he saw the gunslinger still moving. He slid to a stop and went down next to the man.
"Chris, you ok?" There was blood all over his face, not from a bullet wound but from having hit his head when the horse had gone down. A quick glance told him that Chris' horse was dead. He reached under the stunned man's arms and hoisted him up to his feet and began to move back to the wagon almost carrying the semi-conscious gunslinger. Bullets kicked up the dust around them; he turned and fired two more shots behind him. Seeing two riders coming at him at a fast gallop urged him to pick up the wounded man and run to the cover of the wagon.
"Get down Josiah." Without thinking he flung himself to the ground, he put his hand up to Chris' head in an attempt to protect him from any further damage. The boom of familiar guns went off close to him. After several seconds of deafening noise the sudden silence was almost eerie. He looked up and as the dust cleared he saw Ezra and Nathan both standing at the back of the wagon with guns out still covering the downed gunmen. Nathan's arm quickly snaked around Ezra's waist as the gambler slumped. He gently guided him backwards and sat him on the tail runner of the wagon. The southerner nodded his head slowly to the healer, indicating that he would be fine. Nathan looked at him for a second and then ran up to Josiah who was carefully rolling Chris over.
"I don't think he took a bullet Nathan but that fall was bad. He hit his head, there's a hell of a lot of blood." The sounds of more horses made them turn their heads. Two riders were galloping away in the distance. A shot from Ezra's gun made them duck low in their saddles. A low moan from Chris snapped Nathan's attention back to his wounded comrade.
"Come on Chris, wake up. Josiah go fetch a canteen." He turned as a canteen was suddenly thrust into his line of sight. A very pale Ezra who looked decidedly unsteady on his feet held it out to him. He was shocked that he had been able to make it from the wagon over to them without collapsing. When the shooting had started it had taken a lot out of the gambler to get out of the wagon. He had never seen a man more determined to do something so had helped him get out. Injured or not the man was a deadly accurate shot with a gun. He took the canteen and watched in almost slow motion as Ezra collapsed to his knees. "Thanks." He said, unable to think of anything else to say.
He turned his attention back to his newest patient. Chris had his eyes open, they were glazed and unfocused and immediately Nathan noticed that one pupil was larger than the other was. "Ok Chris lay still, you got yourself a nice concussion there not to mention a few pretty deep cuts in that head of yours." Removing his bandanna he proceeded to clean up the cuts and remove as much dirt and blood from the blond man's face and head. "Come on Josiah, let's get him to the wagon." He turned to face Ezra. "You stay right there till we come back and fetch ya. Do ya hear me Ez?"
Ezra lifted his head and without argument or complaint nodded slowly. Nathan could see that the con man was exhausted. It was usually the only time he did as he was told, when he had no energy left or when he was so ill he could do nothing but behave. It took them a few minutes to settle Chris into the back of the wagon and then a few minutes more to pick up Ezra and get him settled as well. That done Josiah headed the team towards Nettie Wells' place. Nathan busied himself in the back cleaning and bandaging Chris' head.
Sunday Nov 15th
His hair was ruffled; the white shirt was less than pristine. The collar was open and the top three buttons were unfastened revealing a smooth chest marred only by the bandage that covered his right shoulder. Her eyes dropped to the right arm that was still securely fastened to his side. Her gaze lifted to take in the sleeping face. Dark circles under the eyes told of too many nights without sleep. A drop of sweat fell from the brow and a slight sheen of moisture on the upper lip told her that he still had a fever, a mild one maybe but he was still hurting.
She looked into the face deeply wishing that this moment could last forever. She could lay there and watch this man sleeping and never want for anything again. No one had ever told her that she could feel this way. She felt her stomach jump at the thought of anyone causing him harm. The mere thought of losing him and never seeing him again caused an almost physical pain to overcome her.
Silently she watched as he woke up. He took a moment to focus and then turned his emerald green eyes to look into hers. Neither of them said a word for at least a minute; they stared at each other falling deeper into each other's souls. She spoke first, softly as if the noise would break the spell.
"Are you OK?"
"I'm OK, are you OK?" The corners of his mouth curled up. He didn't move afraid that she would disappear as she had so many times in his dreams. She took a deep breath, gulped and with a smile whispered back.
"Yeah." He still hadn't moved but his smile deepened as he replied.
"Well that's OK then."
She turned her head slightly on the pillow and with a rather serious tone said, "We're gonna have to come up with something a little more original than 'are you ok'. I mean people are gonna think that's all we ever say to each other." He laughed and pushed himself carefully from the chair. The spell was broken.
He sat next to her on the bed and took her right hand into his left; he gently squeezed and once again looked deeply into her blue eyes. "Seriously now, how do you feel?" The concern on his face and in his voice was all too real.
She pulled her eyes away from his gaze and looked down as if looking inside herself. "It feels like I'm breathing through a blanket, my chest hurts and I'd swear there was a bull sitting on me. Apart from that I feel fine, raring to go." She stopped took a breath and looked back into the captivating green eyes. After a moment she pulled her eyes away and looked around her. "Where are we, how long have I been asleep?"
"We're at a ranch outside of town, belongs to Mrs Nettie Wells and her niece Casey, we have been here for two days and you my dear lady have been asleep the whole time."
She turned back to look at the handsome face. "You look about as bad as I feel, how are you. Really?"
"Me, well if you were to believe our esteemed Mr Jackson, I should be in bed resting and not undoing all his hard work. Truthfully I am fatigued, experiencing some discomfort and most annoyed that I will be without the use of my right arm for some time to come." He reached up and moved a stray hair away from her face and then continued to rub his thumb along her forehead. "But I would not allow a herd of wild horses to keep me from your side until I knew you were out of danger." The gentle touch of his hand against her brow sent tingles all along her body, her eyes began to close as the movement continued.
"You could have just said you were fine." Her eyes closed and he watched as she relaxed into a deep sleep. A soft noise behind him drew his attention.
"You should get some sleep yourself Mr Standish, I'll watch her for a while." Nettie Wells stood quietly in the doorway, she had not heard all the conversation, but what she had heard gladdened her tired old heart. This man surely deserved the love of a good strong woman. "Come on I'm sure you could sleep some, and she needs her rest."
As if from nowhere, Vin moved in from behind Nettie and put an arm around Ezra's waist. With no effort at all he lifted the gambler to his feet and helped him from the room. Nathan Jackson had not been far wrong when he had said that Ezra needed to be in bed. He was far from well and the fever he still had was stubborn much like the man it infested. Since their arrival at Nettie's ranch two days ago he had been at B J side the whole time, refusing to lie down. He had eaten sparingly and had refused point blank to take any of Nathan's vile repugnant potions. He had slept only for short periods of time jolting awake as his head dropped to his chest.
Until that morning he had not cared for his own well being. Waking up to see her looking at him had been the most joyous moment of his life. She was going to be OK. He smiled to himself as he was gently lowered into the waiting bed. Yes she would recover, so he would recover. As he drifted off to sleep his mind turned to healing his own tired body. No one was going to hurt her again; he would need to be well to protect her.
Nathan watched from the corner of the room as Vin laid the tired gambler down. The sharpshooter moved hair from the sweating brow, his hand rested there for a second and then he turned and looked at the black man. "Miss Nettie say's she woke up, she's gonna be fine." He tipped his head back to Ezra, "Looks like he's ready to start healing now as well." He pushed himself away from the wall and walked over to the bed. He looked down into the sleeping face of the man he had come to call friend. It had been a difficult journey for the both of them, him being an escaped slave and Ezra being a southern gent. The odds against them becoming friends had been enormous. There had been many times when they had almost come to blows and no doubt there would be many more in the future but above it all they were friends. Nathan reached for the bowl next to the bed and wringing out the cloth began to wipe down the fevered forehead and neck.
"Well two down and one to go, all we need now is to get Chris to sit long enough for that damn concussion to heal. Every few hours he's throwing up or falling over, I swear he and Ezra came from the same stubborn streak. Neither of 'em admits when they're hurt." He looked up at Vin. "Can you take over here, I'm gonna check on B J and then see if I can get Chris to rest for a spell."
"Good Luck." Said Vin as he watched the healer leave the room. He turned his attention back to Ezra and the task of cooling him down.
Tuesday Nov 17th
The sun was high and despite the time of year it was warm and dry. The nights had been getting steadily colder but the days were holding on to a late Indian Summer. Ezra was out the back of the barn practising his fast draw. He usually had no need to practice but since the injury to his right shoulder had all but put his arm out of commission he had been honing his skills with his left hand.
B J was still sleeping most of the time; he had heard Nathan saying that she wasn't recovering as quickly as he would like but that she had improved a little. She woke enough times for them to get food and water into her along with some of the healer's more noxious smelling concoctions. Ezra wondered sometimes if Nathan deliberately put foul smelling herbs into the mix.
Every moment he was not with B J he was practising, getting used to the way his body reacted when he drew his gun. Back at the wagon when he and Nathan had covered Chris he had realised that due to his arm being fastened to his body, the way he moved was completely different, and the pain it caused had been a shock. He was still fast and could hit what he aimed at but he was not as good as he wanted to be, as good as he needed to be. He re holstered his Remington army revolver and gently kneaded his wounded shoulder. The dull ache was building into a sharp pain and he knew that he would have to stop soon. He looked over to the corral and saw that Josiah was still there, he had been there for the last two days watching, ready to help if need be or just to talk. Josiah loved to get people talking, he said it cleansed the soul to get things out in the open. He turned back to the targets he had set up on the hay bales. He breathed in and before he had let the air out of his lungs he had downed three of the targets and was turning to down a fourth. He stopped after the fourth target and took in a breath; his hand, with the gun still in it came up to his shoulder again.
He holstered the gun and was just about to finish the other two targets when the sound of approaching horses from behind him made him react before he could think, he twisted his body, cleared leather and fired with lightening speed. The blue coated soldiers ducked and Buck who had ridden out with them had his gun out and aimed in a flash. He lowered his weapon when he saw where the shot had come from; he gaped in shock at the man who had fired on them. When he saw Ezra crumple to the ground he was off his horse and running to his friends side. Both he and Josiah reached him at the same time.
His aim had been off due to twisting so quickly. It had wrenched his bad shoulder and he had suddenly found himself in a heap on the floor, the gun was on the ground next to him and he was holding his arm tightly, almost ready to pass out from the pain. "Shit, Josiah did I hit anyone?" he gasped in pain, trying to focus his eyes on the mass of blue in front of him. Josiah looked up; the troopers all looked fine although one was fingering a hole in the top of his cap.
"No, but ya came pretty close. Lucky for them you weren't on top form, that young man would have been making peace with God just about now." Josiah gently helped Ezra to his feet and began to move him towards the house.
"Why did he shoot at us Josiah?" Buck asked as he walked alongside the gambler, ready to help if needed.
"He was practising his draw when your little army there spooked him. I guess he's just a little on edge from being shot at so many times. I gotta admit, I ain't never seen such a fast draw as that before, I doubt even Chris could ha' beat him on that one." Ezra put his hand out and grabbed a handful of Buck's coat.
"Would you please send my sincerest regrets to that young man, I did not... I had no intention... well I would never...."
"No problem Ez, I'll tell him.... something." A glint came to Buck's eye, he smirked and added, "I know I'll just tell him you used to be one of them there Reb's, and you just can't get over the fact that ya lost to a bunch of Yankees."
"Not if I shoot you first Mr Wilmington, may I remind you I still have one bullet left in my gun." Buck turned away and headed for the soldiers, he stopped and talked for a moment to the officer that had dismounted. Josiah settled Ezra on a bench outside the house and looked up to see a Major and another soldier, walk up to them.
"Where can I find Mr Larabee?"
"Right here." Chris walked out of the house and purposefully put himself between the soldier and his men. "What can I do for ya Major?" There was no longer any sign of the weakness that the concussion had brought on. In fact Chris had been symptom free since late the previous evening. Nathan had been pleased to say that although he might have an occasional headache for the next few days he should be back to normal.
"I am here to see a Miss Roslin, I was informed by that young man," he pointed to Buck. "That she was out here, I wish to see her." Chris shot Buck a look that would have frozen a lake.
"May I ask your business Major, and your name please."
"Of course, I am James Edward Roslin, Miss Roslin is my sister. I am here to ensure my sisters wellbeing until my Father's will has been fulfilled. This is Doctor Matthew Coleman an Army surgeon. Now if you please may I see her." Ezra had been slowly re loading his gun, as soon as the Major had said his name he had snapped his head up and was looking intently at the soldiers face. At the mention of seeing B J he shakily stood up and moved between the Major and the door. His gun lifted and pointed dangerously at the man's body.
"I am sorry Major," Ezra put a lot of emphasis on the word Major. "But if you wish to see the young lady I am going to have to insist on a little more proof that you are who you say you are." He turned to Chris. "I do believe we once pulled a similar con a few years ago with blue uniforms, if you recall Mr Larabee." Chris nodded, he reached in front of Ezra and placed his hand on the raised gun pushing it gently down and stood in front of him. He was beginning to realise how dangerous the gambler could be when the need arose. He did not want a repeat of the 'accident' that had occurred a few moments ago.
"I think Mr Standish is correct, Major. Do you have any proof, identification of any kind?" The officer reached into the front of his jacket, stopping suddenly as he noticed three sets of guns trained on him. He carefully reached into an inside pocket and withdrew several documents. He handed them to the black clad man in front of him. Chris read through them and then passed them to Josiah. He glanced at them, nodded his head to Chris and then handed them back. "Relax, Ezra. According to those papers he is B J's brother."
"Fine, but I do not want him to be alone with her. There have been far too many unforeseen occurrences lately." He turned and looked straight into the eyes of the Major, his face a picture of deadly intent. "As you no doubt noticed a short while ago sir, I hate surprises. Do we understand each other?"
"Josiah, stay out here, keep an eye on our guests. Buck you head on back to town, I don't like leaving JD on his own for too long." Chris turned to the Major, "After you Mr Roslin."
More of his men had died, but the ones that had returned had reported that Chris Larabee was dead. That should have made his job a little easier but things had started to get complicated. The Army had come into town yesterday late morning and all but four of them had ridden out almost immediately with the tall moustached lawman, leaving four troopers in town with the young sheriff. Why were the soldiers here? What did they have to do with all this?
The stage drew up outside the hotel and started to empty. He didn't even glance twice when the elderly gentleman dressed in a city suit disembarked. He watched casually as the driver removed his luggage and placed it on the ground. Losing interest his thoughts turned to other matters. With the arrival of the Army he would have to be more careful, lay low for awhile. He was in no hurry to complete his plans, Miss Roslin wasn't going anywhere and he had until the 7th December to deal with her and reap the rewards. His business with Mr Standish could be dealt with at any time now that he knew exactly where to find him. He was a patient man; he had waited all these years for his revenge and was quite prepared to wait a little longer for the right moment.
He decided there and then that he would move to Eagle Bend. It was far enough away to draw attention from him, yet close enough for him to direct his men with the job at hand. Rawlins turned and headed for his hotel room. He didn't notice the elderly city gent head towards the sheriff's office.
Major James Roslin looked down at the pale face of his sister. The last time he had seen her was when she had been six years old, he remembered distinctly picking her up, kissing her on the cheek and telling her to mind her Ma as he was going away for awhile. At the time he would not have believed that it would be nineteen years before he set eyes on her again. He had been wounded badly during the war and had been unable to remember who he was; a mix up had resulted in a letter being sent to his family saying that he had been killed. It had taken a long time for him to recover and on doing so he had found out that his Mother had died. His family thought he was dead so he had let them continue to believe it.
The family lawyer continued to keep him appraised of how his Father and sister were faring. When he learned of his Father's death he had wanted to return then to be with his sister. Mr Simmons had assured him that she was more than capable of taking care of herself. He had promised to let him know where she was at all times. James had confirmed to Mr Simmons that the Army life was all he now wanted and that any inheritance was to go solely to Bettina.
His thoughts came back to the present as he watched Dr Coleman check his sister's vitals. The stethoscope he had moved gently over her chest, moving from the left side over to the right and back again. She had been asleep the previous day when he had first come in to see her. The black healer had explained that he would not wake her up just to see him. He then spoke quietly to the army surgeon explaining what had happened and how he had treated her. At the time she had been expected to make a full recovery, but during the night her colour had changed and her breathing had become ragged. It was Ezra who had alerted them to her condition, he had been with her as usual and had heard the change.
The Doctor and Nathan had shut everyone but Nettie out of the room, and they had spent the rest of the night and most of the next day trying to treat the symptoms. She had developed a fever again and Nettie had been cooling her down with a cool cloth all day. Finally at dusk they had let the Major back into the room, they needed to speak to him about an urgent matter.
"Your sister is going to need another operation Sir." Dr Coleman looked at him pensively. "I have discussed the situation with Mr Jackson here and we are both in agreement that the injury to the lung has continued to deteriorate."
"I thought the original operation repaired the lung." James looked questioningly at the two medical men.
"Mr Jackson undoubtedly saved Miss Roslin's life when he operated, by opening her chest cavity he expelled the pressure that had been building up inside the pleural cavity. Unfortunately it would now appear that the lung has once again collapsed. The result is a Tension Pneumothorax, if we do not release the pressure and soon then it could kill her."
"Doctor, please in English, what's wrong with her and what do you need to do to cure her?" The door to the room opened and Ezra walked in, moving round to B J's side. He had obviously been listening in and now needed to make his presence felt.
"Yes Doctor's I would also like to know what you need to do. You may require Major Roslin's permission for any procedures as he is undoubtedly her sibling but I assure you, you will also need my approval." Chris and Vin stood quietly by the open door; both of them ready to back their friend if necessary or to restrain him if things got out of hand.
Dr Coleman gulped and looked round nervously to Nathan standing next to him. "Mr Jackson, if you would be so kind as to explain in layman's terms what a Tension Pneumothorax is and the procedure to relieve it."
"Ezra, Major." He took a deep breath, realising that what he was about to say would no doubt shock the two men. Hell it had shocked him when the surgeon had explained it to him an hour ago. "The lung is like a sack, full of air that goes in and out and pushes oxygen round the body. Well it's more complicated than that but essentially that's what happens. B J's lung has a hole in it, from the broken rib, and the air has been leaking out. That air is pushing on the chest wall and is basically squashing the lung." He looked back at Dr Coleman and was relieved to see him nodding his head in agreement. Chris walked into the room and stopped next to Standish placing a hand on his good shoulder. He had seen the tension build up in the young man and knew that he needed support.
"So how do you stop this leak and get rid of this pressure?" said Chris directing his gaze at the army surgeon.
"Essentially I will need to insert a syringe anteriorly into the second intercostal space, entering the pleural cavity, that will enable me to aspirate the air. I will then need to insert a chest drain to ensure that no further build up occurs and to allow the lung to clear and repair itself."[i] Ezra looked from the Doctor to Nathan in utter bemusement.
"What did he say?" After what he had just heard he could now understand how the other six lawmen felt when he started to use big complicated words. The tables had been turned and now he was totally lost as to the meaning. At any other time Nathan would have been rolling in laughter at the look on Ezra's face but this was not the time.
"He means he is gonna have to stick a needle in her chest, let out all the air and then push a rubber tube into her side to stop the pressure from building up again." The Major stumbled slightly as his legs almost gave way. He was surprised to find Ezra at his elbow pushing him to sit down on the edge of the bed.
"What... what are the risks, I mean have you done this before Matthew?"
"Yes Major I have performed this procedure before, but I must warn you that the risks are high, the odds of hitting the lung or any major blood vessel are..."
"What?" Ezra had turned to face the nervous looking surgeon. "What are the odds? I happen to know a thing or two about odds and risks so please, enlighten me."
"There is a one in five chance that we would be successful." The gambler looked down at the sleeping face of the woman he had come to love. He glanced back up to the two medical men stood before him and then over to the rather pale looking Major.
"Twenty percent, and what would happen if you did hit the lung or a blood vessel?" Chris could almost hear the figures rolling around in Ezra's head, this was what he was good at, this was what he knew.
"If we hit the lung it could collapse completely and it may kill her although I have known people to survive with only one lung. If we hit a blood vessel then she could well bleed to death before we could open her up and repair the damage." There was utter silence in the room for almost two minutes.
"And if you do nothing...?" It was a horrible question but one that needed asking.
"She will die." There was no hesitation in the Doctor's voice.
"Gentlemen, Ms Wells, if you will excuse us, I think the Major and I need to talk." Chris looked at Ezra with a questioning glare. "Have no fear Mr Larabee I only wish to discuss the situation." The door was shut behind them as they left the room and try as they might they could only hear muffled talk through the wood. After ten minutes the door was opened and they all filed back in. The Major stood and faced the two doctors.
"I have decided to allow you to perform this procedure on my sister. Mr Standish here has explained to me the odds and we both agree that although the risks are high we do not seem to have any other viable options."
"Good, we will begin immediately. We will inform you when we are done. Now please leave the room so we may prepare."
Wednesday Nov 18th
JD rode next to the buggy as they neared the Wells place. He looked over at the elderly man seated in the small contraption, he was from New York and the young lawman was eager to ask him all about his hometown and what things were like now. He had tried to strike up a conversation when they had set out that morning but Mr Simmons had answered in very short clipped sentences that had told JD that the man did not want to talk.
His mind turned back to the previous day when the lawyer had turned up at the jailhouse. He had listened intently to the story and was surprised to find that B J was to inherit a large estate, obviously the lawyer had not mentioned any figures but for the man to come all this way to fulfil a clients will meant that it was a reasonable sum. When he had informed Buck of the conversation they had decided that JD would take Mr Simmons out to see B J the next morning.
JD twisted in the saddle to look back at the trooper following slightly behind them, he had been annoyed when Buck had suggested that they have him as an escort. Didn't his friend think he was capable of dealing with any trouble?
The young soldier hadn't spoken for the whole trip and had remained behind them all the time.
He looked ahead to see the familiar outline of Nettie Well's ranch, his eyes searched around looking for Casey. He spotted her coming out of the barn. "Hi Casey." He shouted ahead. She turned and stared in the direction of the shout and then waved her arm to show she had seen him. She continued on into the house. Minutes later Chris and Vin walked out onto the porch to greet him.
"Problem JD?" Chris asked looking from the young sheriff to the elderly man in the buggy.
"Nah, just brought this guy out to see B J, he's her lawyer Mr Simmons, the one that sent that telegram. He came in on the stage yesterday."
"Mr Simmons, what can I do for you?" asked Chris.
"I am here to see Miss Roslin, firstly to check on her condition and secondly to conduct business relating to the reading of her Father's will. I understand Major Roslin has arrived, may I speak with him?"
"Sure can, Vin fetch the Major. I am afraid you won't be able to talk to B J for a while, the doctor is still working on her. I'll let her brother explain to ya." The blue coated soldier came out of the house and the two gentlemen walked across the yard to talk in private. Josiah passed them coming from the barn and stepped up to the porch, he settled his large frame onto a bench.
Vin came and stood next to Chris, "There must be somethin' awful big in this will for all this secrecy and for him to come all that way. What I don't understand is how come all the attention is on B J? Usually any inheritance goes to the oldest surviving relative; by all accounts that's him."
The two friends turned as Ezra came out of the house. They noticed the drawn haggard look and the lines of worry marked across his face. He needed sleep but they both knew that would not happen until B J was out of danger.
"Who is he?" asked the tired gambler.
"B J's lawyer, come to read her Father's will." Chris answered. "Seems there's something mighty important he needs to discuss with her."
Josiah leaned forward; he rested his chin into his large hands and looking out at the two men talking he spoke almost to himself. "What I don't get is how come it took so long to read the will? Usually that's done when a person dies. Her Father passed away nearly five years ago, seems kind of weird to be reading the will so late."
"Well I guess we'll find out soon enough, they're comin' back." The Major and the lawyer approached the group of men on the porch. Mr Simmons spoke first.
"Gentlemen, as I have previously mentioned I am here to discuss the finer details of Mr Roslin's will with his daughter. I am prevented, due to the stipulations in the document, from convening a meeting until Miss Roslin has turned twenty-five years of age. What I can tell you gentlemen is that she must be kept safe and well until that time."
"When exactly does she turn twenty-five?" Vin had moved to stand next to the small elderly man.
"Her birthday is on the 7th December young man, and all I can say is that if anything should happen to her before then, then the inheritance would pass to a certain cousin who I am informed by associates is the only living relative apart from Miss Roslin's brother." Chris spoke up next with some confusion.
"How come it ain't goin' to him in the first place? He's obviously the eldest."
James Roslin stepped forward. "I relinquished all rights to my Father's estate years ago. I have a life in the Army sir and have no need for anything else. However Bettina has worked her whole life next to my Father and knows the business and knows horses. She has more of a right to the inheritance than I ever did."
All conversation stopped as Nettie Wells came out onto the porch. "The Doctor and Nathan will be finished shortly, looks like the operation went well, Doc Coleman says it'll be a while before we know for sure but don't look like they had any problems so let's all just say a few prayers and hope the lady comes through." She turned and walked back into the house. Silence fell over the men stood outside. After a few minutes the lawyer spoke up.
"Well gentlemen, considering the circumstances, there is not a lot more I can do until Miss Roslin's birthday. With your permission sir," he turned to face the Major. "I will return to the town and my accommodations, you will no doubt keep me informed as to your sister's condition." He turned to face Chris and Vin. "Please believe me sir that it is vitally important that you keep Miss Roslin safe, there is a considerable sum involved and I for one would not relish having to settle the will with her cousin. He does not have the flair for business and has of late fallen in with the wrong people. It would be a total waste of a lifetimes achievement if the estate went to that young man."
"Don't you worry Mr Simmons we'll look after her." Chris turned to Josiah as soon as the lawyer was out of earshot. "I want you to go back to town with JD, I reckon were gonna need to keep an eye on that gent as well. Seems to me someone may try to take a pot shot at him to keep him from reading the will."
Chris settled himself on the edge of the porch and Vin sat down next to the silent gambler. Ezra had not said a word since the lawyer had turned up. The sharpshooter turned a worried face towards the blonde gunslinger. Chris had also noticed how quiet the southerner had been and looked at Vin shrugging his shoulders. Experience had taught him that Ezra would talk when he wanted to. Trying to make him talk would push the young man further into himself.
Jethro Rawlins watched as the five men left. He smiled thinking of the havoc that they would cause when they found Standish and the woman. Time was growing short and he needed to ensure that Miss Roslin was dead before her 25th birthday. He had sent two men the day before to return to Four Corners and find out more about the lawyer. He had been informed by his men that that the old man had been seen leaving town with one of the lawmen and some of the soldiers, and that he had returned late that evening with no soldiers but two of the lawmen. His instructions had been clear, they were to find out where the lawyer had been and then to hold onto him until they had reported back. He would then decide what to do with the old man.
He held the telegram in his hand that he had received that morning from Four Corners. Another of his men was dead but the one that had sent the telegram was hold up keeping a low profile. His fool of a partner had tried to snatch the lawyer but had not reckoned on the presence of the giant lawman Josiah. He had paid the price for his stupidity.
So they were hiding out on a ranch outside town. Well that was even better than having to deal with them in town, not so many people getting in the way. At least that Larabee fellow was out of the picture, he was sure that his men would be able to cope with a wounded con man and a weak sick woman. Yes there were soldiers on the ranch also but his men had assured him that they were no trouble. He scoffed at their bravado. They were fools. Young and full of self-importance they thought they could take on the whole world and come out unscathed. Well men were cheap they would either die trying to kill Ezra and B J or they would live. It made no difference to him; money would always buy more men.
Monday Nov 23rd
Ezra's eyes snapped open, he lay quietly forcing his breathing to keep to a steady rhythm he turned his head slowly listening for any noise around him. Something had woken him. His left hand caressed the cool metal of the Remington Army revolver that lay under the covers next to him. The long slender fingers of his hand clenched around the handle at the sound of a dull thud on the porch. He slid carefully from under the covers, reached for his black pin stripe trousers and pulled them on. If he was going to face trouble he would at least have his pants on to do it. He ignored the boots opting for the silent approach and moved quietly over to the window.
The last three weeks had turned him from a calm unruffled southern gentleman to a nervous wounded animal capable of killing at the slightest hint of danger. The incident with the trooper a week ago had proved that he was on edge. He still shuddered at how close he had come to ending that young mans life, he was like a fish out of water floundering on the banks unable to control anything around him. His whole life had been moulded around control, knowing the odds, figuring the risks and being able to stack the deck in his favour.
He moved slowly to pear through the murky glass, his gun raised next to his head. A shadow moved over the rough-hewn boards of the porch. Ezra raised his eyes to see who was outside. The air escaped from his lungs in a loud sigh, his body relaxed and his head fell forward to rest on the window frame. He trembled visibly and mentally pulled himself together. Turning the butt of the gun he rapped it smartly on the glass pane. The figure outside was startled and turned towards the noise. The sudden movement caused a shot of pain that ran through the left side of her body, she gasped and promptly collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Ezra moved with a speed that surprised even him and was outside by her side within seconds. Kneeling down next to her he snaked his left arm under her right side and supported her slight frame.
"What the hell are you doing up?" His southern demeanour and charm dropped away at the fear that encompassed him. "Walking around out here on your own, you scared the hell out of me. I nearly shot you." His tone softened as he realised how harsh he had sounded. "How would I explain that to the others?"
She looked up at him, noticing the bare chest and the bulging muscles. Beads of sweat glistened on her brow. "I'm sorry but I needed to get up, I've been off my feet for too long I needed some fresh air."
"Why didn't you just ask, I am sure Mr Jackson would have agreed to allow you to sit on the porch." Ezra gently lifted B J to a standing position and then moved her back to settle her on the bench. He looked at her as she rested her head back against the house, her eyes closed. Five days ago the army surgeon and Nathan had operated to repair the lung injury, her condition had been serious but she had made steady progress and they had removed the chest drain on Saturday morning. He understood her need to be up and around, it was the worst part of recovering from an injury being unable to move or sit up or even dress. Every day and night for the last three weeks one of the six lawmen had helped him with his shirt. The injury to his collarbone meant that the arm had to be kept still as much as possible. They would first have to remove the supporting bandage that encircled his body and held his arm in place, then they would ease his shirt either on or off. The arm would then have to be replaced in a sling and once again secured to his body.
Nathan had suggested to the southerner that it would be a lot easier to leave the shirt off and just hang it from his shoulders but Ezra had no intentions of walking around only half dressed. He had his reputation to consider even if they were out of town at the ranch. He would not allow Ms Wells or Casey to see him attired in anything less than the clothes of a gentleman.
"Ezra, can we walk for a bit please?"
"Are you sure you're up to it? If anything should happen I would blame myself. Not to mention that Mr Jackson would be a trifle upset. He takes on the demeanour of an upset hornets nest when riled, it is not a pretty sight."
She laughed and turned her blue eyes to him. "I am sure I can manage and don't be concerned I have had my share of dealing with overbearing men in my life, I think I can handle Nathan." She paused and looked him up and down, she smiled and raised an eyebrow; "Don't you think you should put something on first."
Realising that he had no shirt on he returned to his room and moments later came out with his jacket draped over his shoulders and his boots on his feet. Putting his arm around her waist for support she stood and they proceeded to take a walk around the ranch. They were in no hurry and for the first fifteen minutes never spoke. The leisurely stroll took more out of her than she wanted to admit but it felt good to stretch her legs. It also felt good to have this man so close to her. She could feel every breath, every movement of the toned muscles on his arm and chest. It was another one of those magic moments that she didn't want to end.
When they reached the corral, Ezra turned and asked B J if she wanted to rest.
"Yes, I think I'll just sit down here for a moment." She moved over to the water trough and carefully lowered herself down on the edge. She looked up into the handsome face, "Ezra, what's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, why are we here at this ranch? Why were you shot? Why are the soldiers here?" He pulled his gaze away from her. How much should he tell her? Was it his place to tell her or should he leave the explanations to her brother and lawyer? He looked down at her and knew that she had a right to know. Chris had filled him in on what was happening and he was glad, he was prepared, hopefully for any more attempts.
"It would seem that you and I have a common adversary."
"Adversary! You mean enemy?"
"Exactly. Mr Larabee became aware of a possible threat to my life after numerous unexplained coincidences; my being shot coming back from Ridge City. Being knocked over by a careless passer by in town, the fire in the livery and before that the shooting in the street that injured young Mr Dunne." He paused as a look of partial understanding crossed B J's face.
"That was the first day I arrived in town, I had the strangest feeling that evening and I just knew I needed to go out on the street. I'm glad I did now looking back."
"As am I, but up until the fire at the livery Mr Larabee only suspected a threat against myself. It wasn't until he received a telegram from your lawyer warning of a threat to you, that he realised that the same person threatening me was also after your good self as well."
"Who is this person after us and why should he be after me?" This was all getting rather confusing.
"Ezra!" They both turned at the sound of Chris' voice coming from the barn. The gambler lowered his gun, it had appeared in his hand from nowhere. A smile crossed his face in an apology as he pushed the Remington back into the top of his pants.
"I think it's about time Miss Roslin went back to the house, I believe the Major would like to speak to her and I'm sure Nathan ain't gonna' be too impressed with her being out for too long."
Ezra looked from Chris to B J and saw the tired lines in her face. "Yes I think you have had enough fresh air for one day." B J started to protest, she wanted answers but seeing the determined set on the two men's faces realised she would get nowhere. She would not forget and would get her answers later.
They returned slowly to the house and after Ezra had settled B J back in bed he came out onto the porch. Chris was waiting for him; he glanced down to see that the southerner had now put on his gun belt. "We need to talk Ezra." He had noticed changes in the gambler and was concerned as well as pleased. He was worried at how easily the man drew his gun at the slightest provocation and slightly taken aback at the speed with which he could draw. He was also proud in much the same way a parent would be proud at the first signs of growing up in their child. This woman had pushed aside the insecurities that Ezra had always had. Oh he denied it of course but Chris had seen the doubts in the younger man's face when it came to friendships or having to rely on others.
"What can I do for you Mr Larabee?" Ezra indicated that he wanted to walk so the two men slowly made their way round to the back of the barn.
"I think that's my question Ezra, what can I do for you? Something's troubling you and I need to know what it is. What happened just know, that's the second time you've pulled a gun on me." He paused when he saw the look of confusion on the gambler's face. "Back in town when Nathan had to operate on B J. Remember?"
"I... do seem to recall something happening to that effect, yes. I must apologise for my actions, I was under a lot of... pressure at the time."
"I understand that Ezra, more than you will probably know. My concern is... I have faced down a lot of men holding a gun on me in my time and without a doubt I knew whether they were gonna use it or not. My concern Ezra, is that on both those occasions when you drew a gun on me I had doubts." He put his hand up to his mouth and looked intently into the young man's face. After a few moments of deep thought he removed his hand and continued.
"I'm gonna ask you again Ezra, what can I do? What's put you so on edge that you're likely to shoot your friends at the slightest push?"
Ezra moved a few steps away and paused. When he didn't turn, Chris moved around and stood in front of him. He was shocked to see a look of total devastation on the usually calm poker face. He placed a hand on the man's shoulder and felt the flinch as he tried to move away. He held on refusing to allow the gambler to pull away.
"Chris, I... I find myself at an impasse, and I don't know what to do next." The gunslinger was shocked at the use of his first name, something was definitely wrong.
"Is this about B J?" Ezra looked up into the blonde man's face.
"Is it that obvious?"
"It is to me, she loves you, you do know that don't you?"
"Yes... No... I don't know. I've never felt this before, at least not like this. Oh sure I have loved women before but there has always been something to end it." Ezra shook his head; the confusion inside made it difficult to put what he felt into words.
"Are you happy Ezra?" the question was completely out of the blue.
"Just answer the question."
"Well at the moment certain things are a little... troublesome." Indicating the state of his arm. Chris knew how much the injury was bothering the southerner. "On the whole, yes I am most propitious." He guessed that meant happy. He shook his head and looked deeply into the green eyes.
"You're content Ezra, satisfied. Normally you're in complete control of any situation and that's your problem. You're no longer in control and it scares you. You've been missing something vital from your life, and you're just starting to realise that what you have is not enough."
"Why should I need more?" The question wasn't completely directed at Larabee, he was asking himself mostly, voicing his own concerns. "I have employment, skills, a roof over my head. I have travelled and seen things most people only dream of. I have... friends." He looked into the older man's face hoping and wishing that his statement was true.
"Yes Ezra, you do have friends, but you need more. Listen for as long as Sarah and Adam were alive they showed me a world beyond guns, a world where I could love and be loved. They gave my life meaning and balance and it was my honour to love them for the short time they were with me." He turned his face away not wanting to let the gambler see the emotion welling up inside him. "I'll tell you something else, even knowing their fates, I would do it all over again. That is love."
"Mr Larabee, I don't know if I can relinquish that much... control. I have been hurt before and I...."
"You deny the experience, because you think it must inevitably end in pain. That's your Mother talking Ezra not you. It's time to think of your own future. Leave your past behind."
Tuesday Nov 24th
Buck was worried. He looked out over the dusty street towards the undertakers and shook his head wondering where all these gunmen were coming from. Why had they taken a sudden interest in their town? He knew it had something to do with Ezra and B J just as he knew it was all related to that Rawlins fella. He had hoped things would settle down after the fancy gent had left town but things were getting worse.
The last bout of gunfire had been directed at the old lawyer. Along with Josiah's help, he and JD had killed one and sent the other to ground. Josiah was out now checking all the known hiding places. Mr Simmons had been roughed up some but not hurt and he was now proving to be a royal pain in the ass. He was insisting on having a personal guard with him all the time. Chris had told him to make sure nothing happened to the old guy so Buck had agreed against his personal wishes. In his opinion lawyers were worse than outlaws. At least outlaws were honest in their chosen professions; lawyers hid behind rules and regulations and twisted everything to their own benefit. They bled you dry without you ever knowing it until it was too late and then they smiled and sent you a bill.
He checked his pocket watch and grimaced seeing that it was almost time for him to take over from JD. He resisted the urge to go in guns blazing. It would be too difficult to try to explain to Chris what had happened. He hunched his shoulders, pulled the collar of his coat up and walked down the street to the Ritz Hotel. The wind was picking up and the chill in the air was taking a down turn. It wouldn't be long before snow showed it's ugly head.
As he approached the front of the hotel the frowning unhappy face of his young protégé greeted him. JD was not in the best of moods.
"About time too, I was just gonna come lookin' for ya. I swear that man is getting worse. He just asked for a bath to be brought up to him. Want's real hot water and some kind of sweet smelling soap." The young man smirked at Buck and slapped him on the shoulder. "I guess that's your job now, seems I'm off. I think I'm gonna head on over to the saloon get me a drink and a hot meal and relax."
"Hold on a minute their partner." Buck grabbed JD's arm before he could make good his escape. "You ain't goin' nowhere, 'cept out to the ranch. I want ya to take Chris and Ezra's horses out to em. If there's trouble they're gonna need em. Might as well take B J's Palouse as well."
"Awh Buck, draggin' three horses that's gonna take the rest of the afternoon and it's getting cold out here. You know them horses don't get on with each other. Chaucer is like a wild cat if ya go near him without Ezra around. I suppose ya want me to saddle em as well?"
"Well they ain't gonna be much good without the saddles are they. Get Tiny ta help ya, I'm sure Chaucer don't mind him."
"Yeah right, Tiny is like ta just walk off when I suggest that one. He 's still got that welt on his backside from the last time he went near that damn animal."
"Whatever Kid, but Chris needs those horses, they ain't gonna be staying out there for ever. Besides ya get to see Casey again, ain't that worth the hassle?" The look on JD's face changed and Buck knew he had played the right card. A little of that Ezra cunning had definitely rubbed off on him.
"Well, alright then but the next dirty job is yours and if that animal bites me I'm gonna shoot it and tell Ezra you did it. OK!" JD walked off in the direction of the livery; Buck stood there deciding whether to go with him. No the kid could take care of himself. He turned back to the hotel and a shudder went through him. What was worse facing a room of angry gunmen or looking after that surly lawyer? His hand flexed on the handle of his gun as he straightened himself and walked into the lion's den.
The light was fading and the wind had picked up. JD was certain the temperature had dropped to below freezing, he pulled his jacket closer around his body wishing he had remembered to bring his gloves. With one hand holding his own horses reins and the other holding the three lead ropes his fingers were starting to go numb from the cold. He looked ahead and saw the familiar rise in the land, just over it and below was Ms Nettie's ranch. He was certainly looking forward to a warm fire and hot coffee.
He glimpsed Chris sitting out on the porch and noticed that a few of the soldiers were hunched around a fire near their tents just the other side of the corral. JD raised his hand and waved and then pointed to the stables to show Chris he was headed that way. He got down and turned to pull the four horses into the barn behind him. He slapped Chaucer on the muzzle, as he was about to nip Chris' big black and jumped back just in time to avoid a mouth full of teeth headed his way.
He walked over to the house and stepped up onto the porch. A big smile spread across his face when Casey appeared in the doorway.
"Good ta see ya again Casey, how ya been?"
"No different from when you asked the last time." Ezra stepped out from behind the young woman and moved to the front of the porch. JD shook his head in confusion at the girl wondering if he would ever be able to figure her out. One minute she was coming on to him all hot and strong and the next she was as cold as winter snow. The thought of cold weather made him shiver. He turned to the two men next to him.
"I brought your horses out for ya, Buck reckoned ya might need em. I swear Ezra that animal of yours is mean. Tried to bite me twice and kept snapping at the others. Do you train him to do that?"
"Chaucer is a gentleman and as such his disposition, when forced to endure unnecessary hardship is much like mine. Meaning young sir that he becomes difficult and unpredictable." Chris looked to the gambler wondering if he knew just how much of his character he had given away in that statement. Over the past few weeks Ezra had been forced to endure things way out of his usual scope and had become very unpredictable even dangerous on occasion.
Chris suddenly saw Ezra's gun in his hand and before he could think to ask why a shot was heard from behind the soldier's camp.
"Get down!" Said Ezra as he moved into a crouch and put himself in front of Casey. The sound of gunfire erupted all around them as bullets flew from three separate places. The soldiers had scattered and Chris could see Major Roslin directing some of his men to the area behind them. Just as he turned his attention back to the immediate vicinity JD was flung back against the house wall by a bullet hitting it's mark. He slumped almost in slow motion and slid down into an ungainly heap on the floor, Casey screamed and rushed to his side. Ezra let off two shots and moved to cover his fallen friend.
"Nathan get out here. Now." Chris shouted over the noise of the gunfire. The black healer inched his way out of the door and with Casey's help pulled the unconscious youngster out of the firing line. Chris turned back to face the firing and felt a white-hot pain lance through his upper right arm. He momentarily dropped his gun but a second later picked it up and fired a fatal shot at the gunman that had winged him.
As the battle continued he forgot the minor injury and moved off the porch to the side of the house. Ezra followed closely behind him, the familiar boom of Vin's Mares Leg could be heard over the cacophony of guns and moments later the sharp sound of a Spencer carbine rifle joined in. Nettie and Vin were busy keeping the gunmen at bay at the rear of the house.
Ezra stumbled slightly, knocking Chris over just at the time a trio of bullets thudded into the wood where the gunslinger's head had been.
"Thanks, nearly had me then."
"Your welcome, now shall we dispense with these ruffians, this infernal racket is giving me a headache." The two men moved off and circled around to the back of the barn. Within minutes they had dispatched two gunmen that had been lying at the rim of the corral, hidden from two sides by some bales of hay and the water trough. The silence was almost deafening as the two men stood and stared around them. The back door to the house opened and Vin cautiously stepped out, his sawn off shotgun held ready for more trouble. After a few seconds he raised the weapon and waved it in Chris' direction signalling all clear.
"Shit." He began to run back to the house as the sudden realisation dawned that JD had been hit. God he hoped the kid was gonna be fine, the last he had seen was a smear of blood left on the wall as JD had fallen down unconscious. Damn that boy had better be alive.
He hadn't noticed that the gamble was not with him. Ezra sat on the edge of the water trough as a wave of nausea and dizziness passed over him. He took in a deep breath hoping that his stomach was not going to embarrass him. After a few moments the dizziness passed, he stood slowly and walked back to the house.
He didn't notice the blood that had dripped steadily into the water trough where he had been sitting or the slowly spreading stain running down the black pants. He didn't feel any pain or discomfort, just the need to get a drink to settle his stomach. The adrenaline coursing through his body numbed any pain or fear; it was an inborn instinct that all men had. The fight or flight syndrome.
He stood in the doorway to the kitchen area watching the scene that unfolded before him. Nathan was working frantically over the prone form of the young sheriff. Nettie Wells was putting a makeshift bandage around Chris' arm wound, it wasn't serious, the bullet had gone right through but it had bled a fair bit. Vin was holding onto Casey, keeping her out of Nathan's way. They had laid him on the kitchen table, there had been no time to get the boy to a bed; he was bleeding profusely from an ugly wound just below his heart. Ezra thought that an inch the other way would have seen the end of the intrepid young gunslinger.
He turned from the horror before him and walked slowly to the bedroom, glancing inside he was happy to see that B J was asleep, at least she was safe. A sense of relief washed over his body and he felt himself relax. He walked outside and settled himself in the chair on the porch. He was beginning to ache all over; his shoulder was throbbing like a dull distant hammer. He looked around him as the soldiers began to clean up the mess of dead bodies. The surgeon was working on one of the young blue coated troopers. The sound of footsteps on the wood boards caught his attention, he looked up to see the face of B J's older brother, looking now he could see the similarities between them, the bone structure of the cheeks and the shape of the nose.
"Was anyone hurt?" Ezra felt like he was miles away, he heard the words, saw his mouth moving but couldn't seem to understand what he was saying.
"Mr Standish, was anyone hurt? My surgeon will be free in a moment if anyone is in need of his services." Ezra shifted his position wincing at the increased pain in his body.
"I believe our young Mr Dunne is in need of some care, Mr Jackson may perhaps need some assistance, the position of his wound looks particularly... hazardous."
"Matthew! Get over here, the kid took a hit." Ezra visibly flinched at the volume of the Major's voice.
"Are you Ok son?" Why did older men insist on calling him son? It was most annoying at times, he had managed to stop Josiah using the appellation and now this man, a complete stranger was doing it. He held back his usual retort and answered civilly, he was too tired to do anything else.
"I am fine sir, just a little fatigued, my shoulder did not appreciate the exercise." The surgeon appeared on the porch and the two men disappeared into the house. Ezra leaned back in the chair and let out a sigh of relief. Peace and quiet at last, he would just rest here a while and then would check on JD and B J.
Tuesday Night Nov 24th
Vin stood quietly in the doorway looking at the silent sleeping form. The kid looked as though he was in a peaceful deep sleep. A flushed face, laboured breathing and bloody red bandage across the young man's chest painted an altogether different picture. At his side sat Casey, she alternated between holding his hand and cooling him down with a damp cloth.
The two medical men had finally finished working over JD. It had taken them three hours to find the bullet, sew up the internal damage and clean him up. Now they would all just have to wait and hope that he would pull through. A fever had already set in and the young body was burning up. Nathan had declared that frequent cold baths would have to be used if the fever did not come down by the next day.
Vin lowered his head and said a silent prayer; he opened his eyes and noticed a pool of dried blood on the floor near the kitchen area. He shifted his gaze and looked more intently. Something was wrong, the pattern of the blood drops was unusual. After the gunfight there had been blood everywhere, a streak of it on the floor near the door where they had dragged JD into the house, another splatter further in where Nettie had attended to Chris' arm wound. The thing he noticed was that all that blood had a drop pattern from coming into the house, the splatters he had noticed were going out. He followed the trail out onto the porch; it was dark out so he couldn't see where the trail went. He looked up to see Ezra; his head down on his chest, he was fast asleep in the chair.
"Hey Ezra, wake up!" he nudged him gently with his foot. "Hey wake up, ya seen anyone come out of the house in the last few hours?" he nudged him again but got no response. He reached into the house and took a lantern from the hook, lit it and moved the light over to the sleeping gambler. "Ezra, wake up! It's a bit early for you to be snoozin' ain't it?"
A movement behind him caught his attention. Chris came out of the house and stood next to the Texan. His right arm was held to his chest with a sling and even in the dim light from the lamp Vin could see the tired pain etched lines on the man's face.
"What's the problem Vin?" Chris had heard the Texan's voice from inside.
"Don't rightly know. He won't wake up, tried a couple a times but nothin'." Vin shifted the lamp and moved in front of the sleeping southerner. "Ah shit!"
"What is it?"
"Hold this." He handed the lamp to Chris and knelt down next to Ezra. He reached under the chair and put his fingers to a dark patch on the wood. He came back up to the light and Chris was shocked to see the fingers covered in dark red blood. Vin moved up to the still form and lifted the edge of the jacket. "Damn, he's been shot."
Chris moved immediately and placed his hand on Ezra's neck. The skin was clammy and cold; he shifted his finger slightly frantically searching for the pulse he hoped was still there.
"There, it ain't much but it's there, he's still alive." He turned and rushed into the house, moments later Nathan followed him out, the healer immediately checked Ezra's heartbeat and breathing and then lifted the jacket. He drew in a sharp breath at the amount of blood soaking the shirt and the pants.
"Ezra! Wake up, Ezra god dammit, don't you die on me." He stood up and before the others could stop him slapped the unconscious man hard across the face.
"What the hell are you doin' Nathan?" Chris said as he grabbed the healer by the arm preventing him from striking again.
"We got to wake him up, he's lost a lot of blood, more than he can afford to lose. If he's awake and stays that way long enough I can get him to drink some herbs of mine that will help him to recover. If he don't wake up he could slip into a coma from shock and..." he didn't need to finish the sentence, the men around him had all seen the devastating affects of shock due to blood loss.
"Alright Nathan, but ya don't need to hit him again. I'll wake him up; I know just what to say to get Ezra's attention. You go and get those herbs ready, because I don't know how long I'll be able to keep him awake." He waited until the black healer had left before moving himself to Ezra's side.
"Vin, you get ready to grab him if this works, I don't want him to fall and hurt himself even more, and ya might have to stop him from lashing out. I'm about to make our young friend here very angry. Just remember to tell him later that I didn't mean any of the things I am about to say."
"Sure Chris, but if he hits me aiming for you then you'd best know here and now that I will get ya back, ya here me Cowboy?" Chris flinched at the use of that word, he smiled at the sharpshooter and taking a gulp of air moved in close to Ezra's right ear.
"ARE YOU RUNNIN' OUT ON ME AGAIN, YA NO GOOD LOW DOWN CARDSHARK?" He took a breath and turned a sheepish look towards Vin, the Texan shrugged his shoulders, looked at Ezra and then back at Chris. He shook his head. Nothing. Not even a flinch.
"YOU'RE A WORTHLESS PIECE OF TRASH EZRA STANDISH, YOU'LL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING. I SHOULD HAVE SHOT YOU FOR THE CHEATIN' COWARD YOU ARE YEARS AGO." Ezra's head moved, he turned his face away from the noise and the two men nearly leaped out of their skins with joy.
"Ezra? Wake up; time to get up now. Come on buddy sleep time is over." Vin continued to talk to the sluggish con man.
"What... what is going on, can't a man get some sleep around here?" Ezra's eyes flickered open; he shifted slightly as if trying to get more comfortable and then closed his tired eyes again. Nathan came out of the house at that moment with a mug full of steaming water, from the smell it had nearly every foul herb in it.
"Ezra, stay awake now, ya gotta drink this, it'll make ya feel better." That said he lifted the gambler's head and placed the mug to his lips, Ezra managed to take a few swallows before nearly choking on the liquid.
"I felt fine before y'all woke me up, goddammit Nathan what the hell was in that? I swear you're trying to kill me."
"Ya ain't fine Ezra, ya got shot. Again!"
"What do ya mean, shot, I been sleeping peacefully here in bed and y'all come burstin' in, start shouting at me... who the hell says I'm a coward, I..." he lurched forward grabbing for his gun. Both Chris and Vin launched themselves on the struggling gambler and grabbed the hand pinning it down before he could draw. Vin wrestled the Remington away from Ezra, and pushed the gun into the back of his pants away from the Southerners grasp.
"Damn, for someone so weak from loss of blood he's sure got one heck of a grip on that gun." He turned to Chris and smirked. "Ya notice he reacted to the word coward and not to cheat, says a lot don't it."
"Let's get him inside, why the hell didn't he say something. Damn fool stubborn southern son of a..."
"Nate, I don't think he even knew." The healer turned to look at Chris; he was surprised to hear the words coming from the gunslinger. Usually it was Chris having a go at the stubborn gambler. How many times in the past had Ezra nearly died because of not taking care of himself.
"What do ya mean?"
"He was with me the whole time during the gunfire and I never saw him take a bullet." He paused and looked up into the black mans face. "Shit, he did stumble on to me, saved my life, I never thought anything more about it, I just figured he must have seen the gunmen and pushed me out of the way. He must have got hit then, only he never felt it. Damn I should have know, he's been bleeding for the last three hours, he could have died there and none of us would have know."
"Ain't your fault Chris." Said Vin "I've seen this before, I knew a man once in the war, got shot up several times but carried on fighting, end of the battle and he suddenly up and collapsed, died right there, never felt a thing."
"Is he gonna be alright Nate?" Chris was worried, he hated to admit it even to himself but the gambler had got under his skin and although he still irritated the hell out of him on occasion he did not know what the team would be like without him.
"I don't know Chris, he's lost a lot of blood, let's just get him inside so I can see what I'm doin'." They settled Ezra onto Casey's bed and then Nathan turned to the tracker. "Vin you'd best go and fetch Buck so he can see JD." Chris looked up at the healer in shock.
"Is JD that bad Nathan?"
"Yeah, it's bad, but don't go thinking the worst just yet, we fixed him up and with the Doc around he's got more than a fair chance, it's just... well I would hate for anything to happen to him and Buck not be here. You know how those two are, joined at the hip an all. If anything did happen to the kid and Buck wasn't told I don't think he'd forgive himself or us."
He turned back to look at the sleeping southerner. This was another battle he wasn't sure he would win. The wound itself was not that serious but Ezra had been bleeding unchecked for a hell of a long time.
"Ms Wells, can you get me a jug of fresh water and then boil some up, I'm gonna need to clean the wound before I can sew it up and then were gonna have to get as much liquid into him as we can. Have ya got some salt?"
"Of course I have, why do ya need it?" Nettie Wells looked at him curiously.
"Well it's just somethin' I learned during the war, it don't always work, but if you put salt into the water, not too much and then make them drink it, well it helps some how. Don't rightly know why, but in Ezra's case he needs to drink and a small amount of salt in the water will make him thirsty. We'll alternate fresh and salted and hopefully that will work." He looked around him at the men holding vigil over Ezra. He wondered if the gambler knew just how much he had come to mean to them all.
"Now you all get out of her, Vin! Go get Buck, NOW! I guess you'd best tell Josiah as well. Wait..." He turned to some paper on the side and wrote something down. "Here give this to Josiah, ask him to find it in my clinic and bring it with him." Vin looked at the two words written on the paper. His reading had improved dramatically over the last few years but he couldn't make out the words. "It's Carao powder, from Central America[ii], came in last month. The write up says it's good for blood loss, supposed to stimulate new blood production." Vin was still confused.
"Just get Josiah to bring it out and hurry he's lost a lot of blood, more than is healthy. I wouldn't want anything to happen to old Ez before Josiah saw him, don't think he'd forgive us for that."
"Mr Jackson..." Nathan spun around and looked at his patient, he was shocked and surprised that he was conscious. "I have repeatedly asked you not to use that god awful epitome of my name. Now may I please have some water...? I find I am most... thirsty."
"Sure Ezra, no problem, just take it easy. Here ya go." He managed to lift his head and shoulders slightly so that Ezra could drink without choking. He got almost a whole glass into him before he stopped. "Can ya stay awake a little longer? I need to get your shirt off and check the damage."
Ezra looked down at the white fine cotton ruffled shirt he wore and was visibly upset at the large red patch covering the left lower side.
"Another shirt ruined, I am definitely going to have to get a new line of work. A dollar a day is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of new shirts I constantly go through. If it's not the dirt and dust it's..." Before he could finish the sentence he had drifted back to sleep. He had not seemed concerned at all about the wound, or where the blood had come from. Nathan knew this was due to severe blood loss, the mind starting to wander and delirium and fever were usually close behind. He turned to see Chris and Vin still in the room.
"I thought I told you two to git. Go on get out a here. He's gonna be fine." The two men left reluctantly and Nathan turned back to look at the pale sleeping face. "I hope." He added to himself.
Wednesday Nov 25th
It was just past midnight when Vin slid off his tired lathered horse and ran into the saloon, he scanned the area but saw no sign of Buck. He headed up to the Hotel and found the ladies man seated in a chair in the lobby, sleeping.
"Buck!" he shook him awake. "We need to get out to the ranch, there's trouble, have ya seen Josiah?"
"Yeah he's over at the church probably in bed, what's the problem? Vin considered whether to tell Buck straight away but knowing that he would probably turn into a bull in a china shop he decided to wait until they were near the ranch.
"Been a gunfight, Chris wants us all out there. Ezra's been hurt bad, we need some supplies from the clinic."
"How bad?" Buck was worried and it came out in his voice. He didn't always let people know, but he cared a great deal for his friends. JD was young and sometimes a little foolhardy, the young were always like that, believing they were indestructible. The others knew he protected the kid, sometimes a little too much. What none of them knew was he also felt the need to watch Ezra's back. He wasn't as obvious as he was with JD because the gambler would hate that but all the same he felt the need to keep an eye on him. Too many people had let the southerner down in his past and Buck Wilmington was not gonna be one of them.
"Bad." Vin almost whispered the word, afraid that if he said it too loud it would bring on the worst.
"Shit, well come on then, I'll get the horses ready, you get Josiah and the supplies. I reckon I'll get us a little extra hardware, can't hurt to be prepared."
Within twenty minutes the three men were on the trail to Nettie Wells' homestead. They rode at a steady gait in silence; each of them filled with their own thoughts on the events of the last few weeks.
After several hours Vin looked over at Buck wondering when would be the best time to tell him about JD. If he told him now then Wilmington would no doubt kill his horse trying to get to the ranch as fast as he could. He looked ahead noticing that Josiah was steadily pulling away from them. He was obviously worried about the gambler and was increasing the pace. Further up the trail Vin reined his horse in, Josiah continued on at speed. Buck pulled up beside him.
"What ya stoppin' for?" he was slightly out of breath and was actually secretly pleased for the stop. "It's not far now, just over the rise."
"I know Buck." He paused unsure how to tell the man about his friend. "I need to tell ya somethin' before we get there." He took a deep breath and moved his horse to stand in front of him.
"Ezra ain't the only one got hurt, JD took a bullet as well." Buck's face changed in an instant, a mixture of emotions crossed his face, concern, fear, anger, and terror.
"Is he...?" He was afraid to complete the question.
"No, he ain't dead, at least he wasn't when I left, but he's hurt bad Buck. He took a bullet in his chest real close to his heart. We were lucky that army surgeon was with us, otherwise..." He grabbed hold of Bucks reins as the larger man made to move his horse.
"Hold on there Bucklin, ya need ta pull ya self together. Ya can't go in their guns a blazin'. Ya got ta think about JD and Casey. He's hurt so ya gonna need to be strong for him, if this goes the wrong way then ya can't let him know. Do ya understand me?"
Buck turned his horse, pulling the reins from the trackers hands. Vin thought for a minute that Buck was crying as he leaned over the saddle horn burying his face in his horse's mane. After a few seconds he pulled himself upright and turned to face the Texan.
"We'd best get on down there, Josiah will wonder where were at." Without another word the two men pushed their horses into a gallop.
Thursday Nov 26th
She sat quietly next to the bed watching the man she loved. She had been shocked at his condition when they had finally brought her in to see him. Nathan had explained that due to the loss of blood he would sleep most of the time. His sleep was not easy though as she noticed the laboured breathing and frequent tossing of his head. He was having bad dreams again. She took his hand as he began to move restlessly. Her fingers closed around the clammy skin of his wrist she could feel the pulse beating rapidly. She squeezed ever so gently hoping that some of her strength would move into his weak and struggling body.
Without letting go she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the bed. The low wick in the lamp cast a dim glow across his face. His skin had taken on a slight yellow tinge; she had seen the same in her Father just before he died and said a silent prayer hoping that the same would not befall this man. He was too young to go yet and besides she loved him, she looked heavenward and not realising she was talking out loud spoke from her heart.
"I will not let you take him, he has so much to live for. Please Lord I need him. I love him. He can't die."
"He hears you Miss." She turned to see Josiah standing in the doorway.
"God... and Ezra, neither of em is ready to answer you just yet but when it's time you'll hear them." That said he turned and walked away. She looked back at the pale and drawn face before her. Even as sick as he was he was still handsome, she pushed a strand of sweat dampened hair off his face her fingers lingering in the short curly dark locks. She leaned forward and placed a soft tender kiss on his lips. She was surprised when he responded to her touch, pulling back she saw his eyelids open slowly, his green eyes focused and turned to stare at her.
"Don't you dare die on me mister." She said with a mockingly serious tone. A weak smile cut across his face. She leaned in to hear him speak.
"You wouldn't look good in black." He whispered, she laughed, if he hadn't been so ill he would have earned a slap for that one.
"I'll have you know that I cut quite a dash in black Mr Standish." Her face took on a serious look. She bent down to him again and whispered.
"He'll pay for this my love, I'll make him wish he was never born. You mark my words I will kill him." She looked into his face and was relieved to see him asleep again. Pushing herself off the bed she walked to the door and with a new resolve and determination in her step she left the room.
Buck was also keeping vigil over JD, the youngster was still unconscious and very ill, but the surgeon had pronounced that he would make a full recovery as long as he was made to rest. Nathan was keeping a watch from a distance knowing that the friendship between the two was a more powerful medicine than anything he or the Doctor could prescribe.
He frequently marvelled at how Buck could switch from being the loveable rogue to a concerned parent figure and (on occasion) a deadly riled rattler. He knew that as soon as JD showed signs of recovering he would switch to teasing him again, not letting the boy know how much he truly cared for him.
No one noticed as B J slipped out of the house in the dead of night and headed to the barn. They never heard her quietly walk the large Appaloosa out beyond the boundaries of the ranch, mount up and look back. After a few moments she turned and galloped off in the direction of town. Her mind was set and she knew exactly what she needed to do and how to do it to get the result she was after. Rawlins was going to pay for hurting her man and if that meant killing him then so be it.
Friday Nov 27th
The sun was just touching the horizon when Vin walked out onto the porch. It was this time of day he enjoyed the most, no people around just the sound of the birds or the occasional wild critter scurrying away from the town before the dawn. Early mornings helped him to relax and gain his balance for the rest of the day.
He stepped down and made his way around the homestead checking all the buildings, stopping by the soldier's camp he spoke to the young trooper on duty for a few minutes then made his way over to the barn. Walking up to his horse he looked around him, he stopped, a puzzled look crossing his face. The Texan checked off in his head each of the animals in the stalls. Immediately his eyes began to scan the ground beneath him. Finding what he was looking for he ran out of the barn, stopped and checked the ground outside; his eyes followed a trail until it disappeared from sight.
"Chris!" he shouted as he ran back into the house.
"What's all the shouting for Vin?" Chris yawned as appeared from the kitchen.
"Where's B J?"
"I would guess she's either asleep or sat with Ezra, that's where she was when I got some shut eye." He caught Vin's agitation and immediately became alert. "Why?" The tracker began to search through the house, hoping he would find her, knowing that he wouldn't.
"She lit out some time last night, I found tracks leading from the barn. Looks like she walked that horse of hers out of sight of the house before she got on. Took off in an almighty hurry headed to town."
"She shouldn't be riding in her condition." Nathan appeared in the doorway. "With that rib only just healing and the damage to her lung, any hard riding and well... I guess I don't have to tell you two how easy it is to rip open fresh wounds."
This time Buck added his thoughts to the conversation. "What do ya reckon she's up to?"
"I'd guess she's gonna try to even things with that Rawlins fella, he's the reason Ezra's banged up again." Vin knew how revenge could make a person do things they would normally think twice about.
"I... we... need to find her..." The four men turned as one as Ezra's weak southern drawl pushed it's way into the middle of the talk. He was stood or rather he was leaning against the door to the bedroom. "I believe... I am in need... of some clothing... a little help..." Both Chris and Vin moved as one and grabbed the southerner as his knees buckled under him.
"You ain't goin' anywhere Ezra 'cept back to bed, ya can't even stand let alone ride." Chris reached under the crumpled, weak frame of the gambler and lifted him into his arms, Vin moved ahead of him and straightened the bed then moved back to allow the gunfighter to slowly ease the injured man into the covers.
"I need to find her Chris, please. She told me... last night..."
"What did she tell ya Ezra? And don't look at me like that, ya ain't got no gun in the bed this time, I checked." He moved in closely to the man's ear. "You're NOT going, now tell me what did she say?"
"She said... she was going to kill him."
"Vin, get the horses ready, you and I are going after her. Fool woman's gonna get herself killed going up against Rawlins and his men."
"Chris..." He turned to see a look of fear and desperation on Standish's face.
"Yeah, don't worry we'll get her back."
Thirty minutes later the two men were riding hard for Four Corners, they knew B J had a good head start and just hoped that they would get there before she found trouble. Neither man was aware that Rawlins had left town and they had no idea the plans that B J had formulated in her mind.
They walked their horses slowly up Main Street. Chris had pulled up just before town saying it would be better to ride in quietly so as not to attract too much attention. Vin scanned the street ahead hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman. They pulled up in front of the livery and Vin jumped down, after a moment he came out and re mounted.
"She made it back alright, Dudley's in there, Tiny says she came in early this morning before sun-up." They headed further into town and got down outside the saloon.
"Let's split up and check around." Chris headed up towards the hotel he knew B J had a room there and decided to check it out, he would also check on the lawyer as well and see if he had seen her.
He turned on the boardwalk as the clatter of hooves and wheels caught his attention. The stage had just rolled in and was now emptying out its passengers. He turned back and almost bumped into a young blonde haired beautiful woman.
"My apologies ma'am." He stepped aside and watched as the elegantly dressed lady sauntered past him, her parasol twirling above her head. She crossed the street and stopped by the stage handing a small valise up to the driver. She was then helped up into the stage. /Damn, she's pretty, wonder when she got into town?/ He moved on towards the hotel, shaking himself as a peculiar feeling went through him.
At first the clerk at the hotel was not happy about letting Chris into a guests room, but after the gunslinger explained himself by placing his hand over the top of his gun the man became very co-operative. Chris opened the door to the room and walked in, his eyes took in every corner before he had taken a step. B J's clothes were laid out on the bed, buckskin jacket, shirt and pants, the boots were on the floor. It was the clothes next to them that made him stop and think.
"Shit!" He grabbed the clothes, turned and ran out of the room, all thought of checking on the lawyer gone from his head. He reached the street just as the stage thundered past him headed towards Eagle Bend. It took him another ten minutes to locate the tracker.
"We got ta catch that stage." He said, catching his breath.
"What for? She ain't on it I checked."
"Yeah, she was." He lifted the clothing in his hand and showed them to Vin.
"I don't get it, those are ladies clothes and ya shouldn't exactly be wavin' em around out here." Vin grabbed the frilly bodice and undergarments and bundled them up out of sight. His face turned a shade of red from the embarrassment. "Where'd ya get those?"
"B J's room, on the bed next to her 'working' clothes."
"Ya mean she dressed herself up as a lady?"
"Yeah, she walked right past me. What I don't get is why she got on the stage to Eagle Bend."
"Well I think I can answer that one for ya." Vin shifted uncomfortably as a few of the town's women folk walked by looking at the bundle of clothes in his hand. "I checked in at the telegraph office, seems there's been a heap of messages between here and Eagle Bend over the last week. The clerk happened to mention the name they was from." He didn't need to tell Chris the way he had 'persuaded' the man. "Seems our Mr Rawlins is now in Eagle Bend, which is just where B J is headed."
"Well I guess we'd best get on out there, if we push the horses we can get in ahead of em."
"Chris, if we push them horses any more they'll end up dead, we already rode em rough getting here from Nettie's place. We either take it steady or get some fresh animals. Which is it?"
"I don't like leaving B J without cover even for a minute." He pondered the alternatives. "Let's get some fresh horses and ride out."
"Ok, I know a few shortcuts, places a stage can't get, we should get there ahead of her if were lucky." The two men headed down to the livery and within twenty minutes were riding hard on the trail to Eagle Bend.
Friday Evening Nov 27th
B J sat quietly; her gaze drifting from the young family that sat opposite her to the fast moving country outside. Her mind was going over the information she had received that morning, Rawlins was in Eagle Bend and that was where she was going now to kill him if necessary.
She had arrived in town early that morning, after stabling Dudley she had gone to the hotel ordered a hot bath and had relaxed in it for upwards of an hour. She had needed the heat to relax the bruising to her body. The ride had been punishing and although the injuries she had received were healing they were still sore. She was relieved that the ride had not opened up the stitches where the surgeon and Nathan had operated.
After the bath she had dressed again in her male clothes and had gone over to the Clarion newspaper office. She explained the situation to Mary, leaving out her plans for the near future. Mary had agreed to help her get all the necessary clothing.
An hour later the two women stood back and looked in the full-length mirror that had been brought to the room admiring the figure that looked back at them from the glass. B J had to admit that she had never felt so beautiful, they had even managed this minor miracle without the use of a steel corset. She thanked the older woman profusely, hugged her and watched her leave the room.
When the door closed B J turned and removed her guns from the dresser drawer, she fitted the small colt to a hidden holster secured around her left thigh. She took a small pair of scissors and carefully slit one of the seams in her skirt folds. It was done so that she could reach into the hole and grab the pistol if necessary. She placed her Colt 45 Peacemaker into the ladies valise along with extra ammunition and the knife that usually rested in her saddle. Then she put a pair of pants and a shirt in and on top placed a few ladies items, make-up, handkerchiefs, perfume and the like.
She stood back and once again admired the results of her efforts in the mirror; she did indeed look beautiful and elegant. Her long blonde curly hair was pulled up and arranged around her face. She placed a ladies hat on top and secured it with a long pin. She then took the long but delicate fitted overcoat and put it on. She checked again to make sure that the alteration she had made to the skirt was not visible. Taking hold of the valise and a frilled parasol she left the hotel by the back door not wanting to attract attention from the desk clerk who would not recognise her in the get up. She made her way to the front and stepped up onto the boardwalk.
She was almost knocked down by a man that had been looking at the very stage she was going to take. He turned and apologised and she nearly lost it as she recognised Chris Larabee. She nodded her head to him and forced herself to continue walking. He hadn't recognised her, but then again why should he. She looked completely different.
Chris and Vin pushed the horses harder as they neared the town of Eagle Bend, they had decided earlier that they would get fresh mounts at the town for the journey back so had quickened the pace. Chris hoped that they would arrive before the stage so that they could stop B J from making a mistake. Both men felt the need to protect the woman not just because she was female but because she meant so much to Ezra.
They rode into town at dusk and settled the horses at the livery. Vin made a deal with the hostler and came out to tell Chris that they had two good quality animals for the ride back. He also told him that he had hired a buggy for B J, as she would not be able to ride in the clothes she was wearing.
They walked together up the street both men keeping there eyes moving checking for trouble; it was a natural state for them to stay alert. Chris stopped and spoke to an old man sitting on a chair outside the general store.
"Stage come in yet?"
"Naw not yet, should be anytime now though."
"Thanks." They continued up the street and stopped outside the saloon. Vin sat down on a chair and Chris leaned up against the post. They didn't have to wait long for the stage, about thirty minutes later it came barrelling into town stopping with a cloud of dust and snorting wheezing horses. They watched as the passengers got down, the young family were from Four Corners, the man worked at the bank and they lived in one of the few town houses that had recently been built behind the Gem hotel. They were visiting his sister and her husband for the week.
Chris stood up straight as B J was helped down from the stage; the driver handed down her bag and then pointed toward the General Store. He kicked Vin.
"Come on, she's headed to the store." They kept back and followed her until she disappeared inside the building. They took up positions each side of the door and waited. Ten minutes later she came out and found a hand on each arm.
"Need any help ma'am?" Before she could allow shock to set in they whisked her away from the main street and moved her down a poorly lit alley.
"What the hell are you two doing here?"
"We might ask you the same question, what's the big idea running out like that?"
"I have business to attend to and I don't need you two getting in my way." She was angry now, how dare they try to interfere? This man was after her and Ezra not them. Chris continued to push for answers while Vin stood watching the entrance to the alley ready to warn them if anyone took an interest in them.
"What makes you think you can handle this situation?" his voice mellowed slightly and he added. "Your still recovering from the last time he tried to kill you, dammit lady ya can't do it all alone."
"Ok, so what have you got in mind to do? How do you plan on flushing him out? You gonna go in guns blazing and just hope to God he hasn't got another twenty men stashed around him. He hasn't exactly come up short as far as manpower goes, or hadn't you noticed?" She had a point; they didn't have a plan. Hell his only intention had been to bring B J back, get her out of harms way. Vin looked over and shrugged his shoulders. He didn't have a plan either. He gave her a sheepish look and took his hands away from her arms. He winced when he saw her rub them; he hadn't realised how tightly he had held her.
"Alright, so we don't have a plan." He hesitated and pulled his eyes away from her hard angry stare. "What... uhm... what did you have in mind?"
"I may dress like a man most of the time and act like one as well, but believe me Mr Larabee I KNOW when to play the lady and I KNOW how." Damn she hated getting angry. Anger usually made her do things before she thought them through and it usually led to trouble. She took a moment to calm her voice. Taking a breath she put the sweetest smile she could muster on her face and continued in a honeyed female laden voice.
"Sometimes a girl just has to resort to being a weak and feeble woman in order to get what she wants. Either way..." her voice filled with bitter, angry resentment. "I GET WHAT I WANT!"
Chris stepped back at all the emotion in her voice; he was beginning to realise what Ezra saw in this woman. Here was someone who could beat him at his own game, a woman that could show him it was all right to have emotions. She was every bit as stubborn and as strong as Standish. It had taken him a long time to realise that there was more to the gambler than any of them had seen.
Her plan was to appeal to the Gentleman in the Southerner. Whether they were a rogue or a gambler, a cheat a liar or just down right evil all Southern Gentlemen bowed to the wishes of a lady in distress. They all turned on the charm where a woman was concerned. B J knew that this was true of most men regardless of their geographical origins and she laughed to herself knowing that most men didn't even know it themselves.
"I intend to approach Mr Rawlins with a woeful tale of being accosted in the street and having my money and a family heirloom stolen. By the time I'm finished he'll be eating out of my hands."
"I don't know, sounds a bit risky. What if he recognises you, we might not be able to get you out of there." Chris was concerned; he hated putting B J in harms way. If anything should happen to her he would not be able to forgive himself. There was Ezra to consider as well, after what he had seen of the man lately he did not want to reveal any more startling hidden talents.
"I can take care of myself Chris." She grabbed his hand and placed it on her left thigh. "Feel that? I'm not exactly going in unarmed."
"What the...!" At first he was shocked and embarrassed, but then his fingers felt the outline of a gun. It was strapped to her thigh under the numerous folds of her skirt.
"I'm not sure about this..." his concern was mounting. "Listen..."
"NO, you listen to me Chris, I've lived the past five years like this, on my own, relying on my wits, my charms. As a man or a woman I know what I'm doing." She reached up her hand and placed it gently on his cheek. "Just this once Chris, let someone else take the reins, trust me I can do this." She left her hand where it was until the gunslinger reluctantly, resignedly nodded his head.
Jethro Rawlins contemplated the cards in his hand, he knew it would win the pot, or at least it would when he added the two aces that he had up his sleeve. He had no qualms about cheating; it had been his way of life for the past 52 years. His bank balance in New Orleans was healthy and if he never gambled or cheated again he could live out the rest of his life on what was in there. But he wanted more, he wanted what was not his and at this moment in time it was the few dollars these hapless lowlifes in front of him had.
He looked up to see a finely dressed lady enter the saloon. What was a woman of such obvious quality doing in this place, he took in the slightly dishevelled hair, the crooked hat and was angry to see a small rent in the bodice of the burgundy dress. His blood began to boil when he saw the small cuts to the side of her face. He pushed his chair up and walked forward.
"Please... somebody... I need some... help!" Chris and Vin were behind the batwing doors and peered into the darkened room. They looked at each other in surprise at the sweet southern belle accent coming from B J. She certainly could act. They turned back in time to see her gently crumple and collapse to the floor. She had timed it to the exact moment so that Rawlins was close enough to catch her.
"Somebody give me a whisky" he turned and glared at the closest man to him. "YOU, a whisky NOW!" he barked out the order and turned back to the distressed lady in his arms. Moments later he took the proffered drink and plied it gently to her lips. She took a sip and opened her eyes.
"Oh my, what happened?" she said feigning weakness and disorientation.
"Now take it easy Miss, you feinted. Do you think you can stand?" she nodded and was slowly raised first to a sitting position and then to her feet.
"It's so stuffy in here, the smoke..." she coughed and placed a laced handkerchief over her mouth. "Would you mind if we...?" she indicated the door.
"But of course my dear, this is not exactly the kind of establishment a lady should frequent, come let us sit outside in the air." He turned to a gunhand stood next to him, "Bring me some water, and be quick about it." Once outside she looked around her but saw no sign of Chris or Vin, he settled her down on a chair and then sat next to her on her right. She was pleased he had sat there, her left hand reached in under her skirt and felt the comforting presence of the colt strapped to her leg. She glanced up at him and caught sight of Chris peering round the edge of the building.
"May I enquire as to why such a genteel lady as yourself entered such an abhorrent place as a saloon?
"May I ask your name please sir, I would like to know the name of the man that has rescued me from such dire circumstances?"
"Of course my dear, Jethro Malachi Rawlins at your service. May I ask your name if that is permitted." She smiled at him, ever the gentleman, these men were all alike, flash a smile, wave a skirt in front of them and they were all yours.
"Oh how remiss of me, my apologies sir, Miss Chamberlain, Eleanor Chamberlain of the Charleston, South Carolina Chamberlain's. My Father is the Governor perhaps you know of him?" she had not picked the name at random, she knew Governor Daniel H Chamberlain or at least her Father had. They had had business on many occasions over the years. His name would hopefully add a little weight to her story.[iii]
"But of course my dear every gentleman of the South knows of Mr Chamberlain his election to office was most... unique. Now how may I be of service?"
"I just arrived on the stage when this large disgraceful man accosted me and took my valise, it had all my money and a family heirloom that... oh my Father is going to be most displeased with me. It was quite valuable... oh my." She slumped slightly in the chair making out that she would feint again.
"Here my dear drink this, it is only water this time."
"Why thank you again Mr Rawlins, you are indeed a gentleman. Would you perhaps assist me to the Sheriff's office so that I may report the theft."
"No need my dear, I will ensure the article and your money is returned, I have men here in my employ and would be happy to help such a fine lady."
"I am most grateful, and I am sure my Father would thank you personally." She emphasised the word knowing that the greed in the man would be stirred up. The possibility of a close acquaintance with the Governor of South Carolina was something he would not be able to pass up.
"Would you see me to my hotel I have a room booked at the Presidential."
"It would be my pleasure." He stood and offered his arm. She took it and stood up on shaky legs, ensuring that he held her more tightly than he would have. They moved along the boardwalk and as she stepped down to pass the alley she collapsed pulling him off balance, at that moment she pulled the Colt from her skirt and pushed it in his ribs.
"Now if you would be so kind as to step this way." He looked at her in astonishment as the barrel of the gun pushed into him. Chris and Vin appeared from the shadows with guns raised.
"I believe you have an appointment in Four Corners Mr Rawlins, you're under arrest for the attempted murder of two lawmen and a certain young lady. I believe you have already met." He indicated to B J. She curtsied and turned to the stunned southerner.
"Miss Bettina Jane Roslin, at your service." The last was said with a sneer.
"You'll never get away with this, I have men all over town. You won't get out of here alive." She could here the panic in his voice; his men were all hired hands and only did what they did for money. There was no loyalty involved with these men.
"I reckon we'll take our chances mister." Vin came up behind Rawlins and pushed him forward with the barrel of the Mares Leg. "Let's go, we got horses and a buggy out back. Move it."
"You ride in the buggy with Rawlins B J, ya can't exactly ride with those clothes on." Chris smiled at her; she had done a good job better than he could have done. He was proud of her and very relieved that she was ok.
"I am not riding next to that low life cretin. Did you bring my bag?"
"Yeah, it's in the buggy, Why?"
"Just give me a minute while I change. You don't think I'm gonna ride all night in these clothes do you? You have any idea how uncomfortable this lot is?" He laughed as she walked away.
"Go with her Vin, make sure she's ok. I've got our friend here."
An hour later they were on the trail back to Four Corners. B J had bought a horse from the livery and was riding next to Chris. Vin was riding next to the buggy with Rawlins inside. They had left his hands free to hold the reins but had tied his ankles together and then fastened them to the buggy. There was no way he was going anywhere without them.
Chris looked over at B J, she had changed into a pair of fitted grey pants and wore a loose ruffled white shirt, it looked to be one of Ezra's which didn't surprise him at all. She had loosened her hair and it now lay across her shoulders. The moonlight caught the blonde curls and turned them to silver. He sighed and turned away. If she wasn't already Ezra's territory he would certainly make a play for her himself. Damn she was one hell of a woman.
They made camp about three hours out and headed out at first light. They set a steady pace and arrived back in Four Corners by late afternoon.
Sunday Nov 29th
Ezra had been awake most of the night. He had woken slowly taking in the sounds and smells around him. He ached all over and knew that he had been in the bed for at least a few days. His back always gave him trouble if he stayed in bed too long. Ten hours was usually his maximum and then he would be up and moving around. The way his back ached now he had been in this uncomfortable bed for a lot more than ten hours.
He had not been idle during that sleepless night, at first he could not recall the reason for his bed-ridden state. He had laid there for what felt like aeons trying to recall why he was there. When he had shifted his position to get more comfortable he had felt the sharp pain in his side. Moving the covers he had investigated and had found a bandage covering his lower body. Ok, he had been shot again, when the hell had that happened? He couldn't recall the exact moment when he had been shot but he did start to remember little things. Feeling tired, watching as the Doc and Nathan had worked on JD; he would have to ask later how the boy was doing. It had looked serious from what he could remember. He remembered somebody shouting at him and being forced to drink one of Nathan's disgusting concoctions.
He pushed himself carefully and painfully into a sitting position. B J had been her sitting with him, she had... damn... the woman was going to get herself killed. It all came flooding back to him as he remembered her words. She was going to make him pay, she was going to kill him.
He looked around him listening for any noise. No one else was up yet; the dawn was only just lighting up the sky. He gingerly pushed himself out of the bed and sat on the edge, head hanging, forcing back the feelings of nausea and dizziness that accosted him. He glanced over and noticed his boots near the bed. By the time he had his pants and boots on he was sweating profusely and his side was sending sharp stabbing pains through his body.
He removed the support bandage and sling from his right arm and was pleased to see that although his shoulder still hurt he was able to flex his fingers without much discomfort. He carefully slipped his shirt and vest on and after a few minutes of searching found his poor battered jacket. It would need some serious mending when all this was over. The side effects of being a lawman caused a lot of wear and tear on his wardrobe, he would have to bring the matter of recompense up with the Judge at the earliest opportunity.
He strapped on the left handed gun belt realising that he was not yet up to par with his right and then methodically checked and re loaded the gun. He felt a little naked carrying only the one weapon but had not been able to find anymore in the room. Ezra stared at the white sling that lay on the bed as if it was a contraption of torture, he hated slings and even more he hated the fact that he would have to wear it. His shoulder and right arm were now throbbing from all the exertion; the sling would at least relieve some of the pressure.
He sat on the end of the bed looking at his reflection in the washstand mirror. He knew deep down that he was being foolish, he was in no condition to go looking for trouble. The pale exhausted face looked back at him, he recalled a moment some time ago when he had sat like this looking at his face, telling himself that he was doing the only thing he could. This time he was not running. He was going to save a life, her life, the woman he had come to love deeply. He stood up, grabbed his hat from the dresser and quietly slipped out of the house.
Josiah was sat near the corral watching the sky and listening to the nocturnal animal sounds. He loved this time of day in much the same way as Vin did. He always felt closer to God on quiet cool mornings.
He looked down to see Ezra walking across the yard to the barn. He was fully dressed and packing a gun. He stood and moved quietly to follow him. Where the hell did the fool think he was going? He watched from the entrance as Ezra awkwardly lifted his saddle, he fumbled and nearly dropped it cursing at the pain it caused his shoulder and side. Resting for a moment he again lifted it and managed to place it on Chaucer's back. Josiah noticed the gambler rest his head on the saddle and quickly moved forward to grab the southerner as his knees gave way.
"Where the hell do ya think you're going?" he said angrily, although his words were couched in concern.
"I need to find B J, she's gone to face Rawlins, I cannot let her do this alone." He pushed himself from the big man's grip and continued to fasten the cinch around the horse's stomach.
"Ezra, she ain't alone. Chris and Vin went after her, now come on back to the house you're in no condition to be up, let alone riding." He stepped back feeling a sense of déjà vu. The business end of a Remington Army revolver was pointing at him. This was the second time that Ezra had faced him down with a gun, when was he gonna learn not to push this man too far.
"Stay out of my way Mr Sanchez, I intend to find her." He backed away from the horse and gestured with the gun. "Put the bridle on and then get out." Josiah moved to the horse's head and did as he was asked keeping an eye on the trembling man before him. When he had finished he opened his hands wide and backed away.
"Alright Ezra you win, just calm down, I ain't gonna rush ya. You go ahead and do what you must." He backed off a few more steps and watched as the young man holstered the weapon and reached for the saddle horn. He lifted his left leg to put it in the stirrup and a wash of fresh pain coursed through his already battered body. He sagged and would have fallen but Josiah had anticipated his actions and was under him gently lowering him to the ground.
"I have to go to her, please you have to help me Mr Sanchez, Josiah please." The big man was shocked by the pleading desperation of the pain filled voice. He looked into the dull green eyes and nodded his head.
"Ok Ezra, I'll help ya, but ya can't go like this you're in too much pain." Josiah lifted his head and looked back to the house thinking for a moment. "You just wait right here, I'll be back in a minute." With that he lay the southerner down and ran back to the house. Ezra lay there hoping he wouldn't bring Nathan back with him, he would never get away if he did. A few minutes later Josiah returned with two canteens. He opened one and pressed it to the gambler's lips.
"Here drink this, it's some of Nathan's willow bark tea, it'll help with the pain." It was still warm and Ezra drank greedily, it was pulled away before he had his fill but was grateful as the pain was starting to recede. What Josiah hadn't told Ezra was that he had mixed a small amount of laudanum in with the tea. He knew the gambler could not stomach the stuff usually but hoped that mixing it would lessen the bad reaction. The medication would work faster than the tea and right now he needed to take the edge off his pain.
"Ok come on let's get you on that horse." Ezra tried to help but was practically lifted into the saddle by the giant preacher. He turned and was surprised to find Josiah saddling his own animal. "Ya didn't think I was gonna let ya go alone in your condition did ya?"
"I... appreciate the sentiment but..." he stopped and looked into the kind soft face of the man that had always stuck by him. "Thank you, your company would be most... welcome."
Josiah mounted and the two men moved out slowly from the barn. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and a cool wind began to pick up the leaves and brush. Dust swirled about as Josiah reached a steadying hand out to the stubborn gambler next to him. He shook his head wondering how much trouble he would get in from Nathan. He could handle Chris but Nathan Jackson was like a mother bear watching over her cubs. A man could get seriously mauled if he got in the way.
Tuesday Dec 1st
The bed was soft, the pillows comfortable he felt warm and safe. He knew he would have to get up soon to start his patrol but at that moment his world was under those smooth clean sheets. He had had one of the worst nightmares he could recall, parts of it had been so real. He wished that some of it had not been a dream. The last part had been most uncomfortable; he had been riding with Josiah and was in a great deal of pain. The drink that the preacher had been giving him only took the edge off. The midday sun had been hot for the time of year and had drained all the remaining energy from the injured gambler.
But it was all a dream; the memory was fading as the pull of a new day brought him closer to waking. He could hear voices and concentrating to listen he picked out the familiar sound of an irritable gunslinger.
"May I ask what you are doing in my room Mr Larabee? I believe it is not quite time for my patrol." He opened his eyes finally and looked around him. He was shocked to see not only Chris but Josiah, Vin and... B J. He was still dreaming, he must be. She had been in his dreams. His head sagged back into the feather pillow as the reality sank in. It hadn't been a dream, none of it.
But if it hadn't been a dream then how had he ended up in his own bed, in his own room above the saloon in Four Corners?
"Hey! Good to have ya back pard." Vin's Texas drawl pulled him completely to the present. He opened his eyes and took in the concerned looks of the men and woman around him. B J came up to his side and with Vin's help lifted him to a sitting position. She put a glass of water to his lips and he drank until it was gone. At that moment he realised how weak he felt, his stomach felt queasy and he recognised the familiar feelings of having been sick on numerous occasions.
"Has someone been feeding me laudanum?" Josiah was the first to turn away. He grimaced and turned back to face Ezra.
"Yeah I'm sorry about that Ez, but ya needed it. Ain't no way you'd ah made it ta town without it."
"First off the name is EZRA, not EZ, and second I believe I have repeatedly stated that that foul substance does not like me." He looked at the faces around him and for the life of him could not understand why they were all smiling. "This is in no way humorous, what part of 'IT MAKES ME SICK' do you people not understand?" He stared at them in utter shock as Vin and Josiah burst out laughing.
"It's good ta have ya back Ezra." Chris patted him on the leg, smiled at B J and then left the room.
"Brother Ezra?" Josiah stood next to him with a glass of water. "Make sure you drink this, it's just water honest, we're all glad you're back with the living. Now get some rest. Vin let's go."
"Sure Josiah, I'll come back later, see how you are. OK?"
"Most certainly, I for one am not going anywhere." He pushed down into the feather bed. "It feels as though I have been without my 'comforts' for decades." Vin laughed and left the room. Ezra closed his eyes and relaxed. He opened them suddenly realising that he was not yet alone.
"Hi there." She said, with a smile spreading across her face. "How are you doing. Truthfully." How come this woman could always read his mind? She had come to know him all too well over the last few weeks. There was no way he was going to play poker with her anymore. Not if he wanted to win.
"Truthfully!! Well there's a concept I rarely..."
"Don't give me that, and just say it plain, no sugar coating, it's me remember."
"Ok, I ache all over, feel like I could sleep for a weak and at the moment I am very confused."
"Why confused?" she didn't understand. She didn't know that his thoughts were still jumbled, that the last thing he could remember was leaving Nettie's place with Josiah and that at the moment he was convinced that it had all been a dream.
"I was at the homestead, I think, and then Josiah came with me to town. But, it all seems so distant as if it's not real. How long have I been here?"
"It's all real Ezra, it did happen. The two of you turned up just after dark Sunday night."
"Yes but what day is today?" he was still confused.
"Oh yeah, sorry its Tuesday, Tuesday morning to be precise, 10.15 I think."
"Thank you, now I believe I will arise and dress, I am in need of sustenance and would just about commit murder at this point for a good long drink, and seeing as Mr Jackson is not here I intend to indulge." He moved the sheets back and stopped, realising that he was only wearing his nightshirt. "I ere, think I can manage on my own..."
"Of course, sorry. I'll be right outside, if ya need any help just shout. OK?"
"OK!" A smile crossed his lips at the memory those few words brought back. B J didn't leave straight away; instead she started to put clothes on the bed ready for Ezra to put on.
After a few minutes she left and Ezra visibly relaxed back onto the bed. He felt more drained than he was willing to admit even to B J. He stood carefully and looked at the clothes she had laid out for him. The dark green jacket with black lapels, pale green striped shirt, black pants and vest and a black cravat. Truth be told they were probably the only parts of his wardrobe that did not require cleaning or repair.
By the time he had put the shirt, pants and boots on he was exhausted, his shoulder and side were once again competing with each other for his attention. He decided to forgo the rest of his attire. He buckled on the gun belt and replaced the sling, snarling at it, wishing he did not have to wear it. He approached the door hesitantly, wondering if B J had actually waited. He opened it and stepped into the corridor and was instantly relieved to see her leaning against the wall looking at him with what could only be classed as a cheeky school girl grin on her face.
"Took ya long enough." She looked him up and down. "I thought a gentleman never went anywhere with out being properly attired." She continued to grin. He could tell she was teasing him and decided to politely ignore her.
"Yes, well this gentleman knows when he is beaten and at this moment in time all I require is food and a drink." He started to walk past her and was surprised when she moved to block his path. What happened next was unexpected yet was no way unpleasant.
Before he could back away she grabbed his shirtfront and kissed him. She pulled away embarrassed at letting the impulse take over. Ezra pulled her back to him and leaned into her strong supple body. He looked at her for a second waiting to see if there was any sign of refusal. He found nothing but acceptance and longing in her eyes. His mouth gently brushed her soft warm lips and the moment stretched into eternity as both their bodies responded to the deepening kiss. B J's hand reached behind Ezra's head and pulled him closer, his hand found the small of her back and held her in position. Her mind switched off as she let the sensations in her body take over; she had been waiting for this from the moment she had laid eyes on this man.
She was yanked back into reality as Ezra pulled away from her. He stood looking into her eyes, he knew without a doubt that he would take this all the way if he let himself, she was more woman than he had ever known. His body ached for him to continue but his sense of propriety had pushed to the surface and was now telling him that what they were doing, what they wanted to do was wrong.
"I... I apologise. We mustn't do this my dear. I... can't let this happen... we have to consider your reputation." With that he pulled away from her entirely and disappeared down the corridor. She stood in shock; her body tingling as the sensations she had experienced began to dissipate. She knew he was right and no doubt if they had let there urges take over then they would have regretted it. She braced herself against the wall and slowly slid down to sit on the floor.
Wednesday Dec 2nd
Chris and Vin sat outside the jail enjoying the peace and quiet. The late morning sun did nothing to heat up the day as a cold biting wind swept through the town.
"Reckon were gonna have an early winter." Vin had seen his share of bad winters and knew the signs. "I guess we'll have to make some extra rounds, make sure the new homesteads are ready."
"Ya reckon we'll have to bring anyone in this winter like we did last year?" Chris remembered having to go out and bring three young families into town. They had not prepared for winter soon enough and if left would probably have starved or frozen to death. Both men had seen it happen in other places. If a family did not prepare enough ground for wheat then they wouldn't have enough to harvest in the fall to get their stock through winter. Animals needed to be bred to produce offspring so that the family could eat, wood needed to be chopped and stacked in great quantities before snow fell. Many families new to the hardships of the frontier had no idea how to prepare for winter; too many never made it.
Vin glanced over at the black clad gunslinger. "Might have to go and check on B J's ranch, seeing as they got in late in the season. May need to help em out with forage for the horses."
"Yeah, I think I'll go and find B J have a word with her." Chris stood up to leave. "You gonna be ok here for a while?" There hadn't been any sign of Rawlins men but they weren't taking any chances.
"Should be, bring back some coffee when you're done." Vin watched as his friend crossed the street heading for the saloon. He stood and stretched his back feeling for the knot that formed whenever he sat for too long. The wind started to pick up so he decided to go inside next to the stove.
An hour later the door to the jail opened slowly, Vin pulled the sawn off shotgun from it's holster and rested it on his leg ready for trouble but he relaxed as Ezra walked in. The Texan noticed the drawn tired features and the way he held his body. He could see he was still in some pain. What surprised him most was that the gambler had no coat on and was visibly shivering.
"What the hell you doin' out without a jacket? Ya can tell Nate ain't here, you'd a never made it outta bed. Get over here by the stove and get warm." Vin tried to steer the southerner to the chair he had placed in front of the stove but Ezra pulled away and stood in front of the steel bars that cordoned off the cells.
He stared at the man sat on the bunk trying to figure out where he had seen him before. The man who had been paid to kill him had said New Orleans. He recalled the numerous cons he had been running when he had been in that fair city. He had arrived there several years after the war ready to put behind him the brutality and suffering he had witnessed first hand. He found a city struggling to come to terms with the effects of the conflict and the prosperity it had lost due to the 'hostilities'. People were all too ready to try new ideas and take risks financially in order to gain in the short run. New Orleans, the most prosperous city of the South was now falling back into the mud due to the loss of its cotton and sugar trade.[iv]
Rawlins lifted his head and looked into the eyes of the man who had conned him all those years previously. The memory flooded back to Ezra like a tidal wave and he was surprised when a hand steadied his back. Vin Tanner threw a rough blanket over his cold shoulders and Ezra looked down to see the trackers hand resting on his left arm. He had not realised that his own hand was clenched around the handle of his gun. Had he really been so close to using it? He looked up into the pale blue eyes belonging to the Texan.
"My thanks Mr Tanner, I had not anticipated the cold wind."
"Why'd ya come over here Ezra? You set on killin' him or just lookin' at him?
"I merely wished to find out for myself who this gentleman was and why I had attracted so much of his attention." Vin eyed the Remington slung on the gamblers left hip, he wasn't so sure it was a good idea to let him near the prisoner.
"Come on, let's get you sat near the stove before ya catch your death."
He had just settled the gambler into the chair when the door opened and Chris walked in carrying a pot of coffee. He looked over at the huddled shivering form of the southerner and then shot a questioning look to Vin.
"What ya doin' out a bed Ezra, and what the hell are you doin' over here?"
"He wanted to get a look at Rawlins." He filled a mug with the hot black coffee and handed it to the shivering southerner. Ezra took the mug and held it awkwardly in both hands warming his cold fingers.
"Well you've seen him so let's get you back to that warm soft bed of yours, I am not gonna be the one to explain to Nathan if you get pneumonia." Chris took the coffee mug away from Ezra and gently pulled up on his left arm. He was surprised there was no resistance, usually the Gambler would complain at being told what to do. The gunslinger grabbed for the smaller mans waist as his legs began to fold under him.
"Whoa there, you all right? Ya think ya can make it to the saloon or do ya want to rest up on one of the cots in here for a while?
"I would rather go back to my own bed if you don't mind. I apologise for this unseemly show of weakness I had thought that I had recovered sufficiently..." he was cut off from saying anymore as Chris reached for his left arm and placed it round his shoulder, his other hand held firmly to his waist. He leaned in and took most of the gambler's weight, and began to steer him to the door.
"To hell with that Ezra, you're sick and injured and ya damn near lost half your blood no more than a week ago. No one expects ya to be back up to fightin' form just yet. No one 'cept you that is." Vin secured the blanket tightly around Ezra's shoulders and then opened the door.
Ezra glanced over at the tanned dark features of the gunslinger and was surprised at the concern that showed on his face. He would never have expected this kind of treatment from a man who usually found fault in almost everything he did. He recalled the conversation they had had at Nettie's place a little over a week ago when Chris had asked him if he was happy. He realised quite suddenly that the gunslinger's attitude towards him had changed almost from that point. Actually, thinking on it harder he realised that the relationship between the two of them had been easier for a lot longer than that.
Friday Dec 4th
The last two days had been quiet, no gunfights, no drunks, and no disgruntled customers. Chris was sat on the edge of the boardwalk outside the saloon wrapped in his winter coat, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. It had been a while since he had picked up that particular book. It was Robinson Crusoe by Charles Dickens. He had bought it over 3 month ago on a visit to Denver and had managed to read the first 3 chapters.
It was turning colder by the day but he still preferred to sit outside and read. The saloon became hot and stuffy after a while and daylight was still better to read in than lamplight.
He looked up to see B J and her brother Major Roslin walking down the other side of the street. It was good to see the two talking to each other. They had a lot of catching up to do. The Major and most of his men had returned from Nettie's homestead on Wednesday evening, he had left two of his men to escort Nathan, Buck and JD back the next morning.
He had reported to Chris that Jackson and Wilmington would start out early on the Thursday morning, bringing the injured sheriff back in the wagon. JD had improved immensely since the shootout at the homestead but still needed a lot of care. Nathan and the army surgeon had decided that he would be better off in town where the black healer could get to all his remedies.
Normally the journey from Nettie's would only take a few hours but it was late afternoon before the wagon rolled into town and pulled up outside the livery. Chris had sent Josiah out to meet up with them, concerned that they may have run into trouble. He had been glad to see them all arrive safely if a little tired from the slow journey. Nathan had insisted on regular stops, JD was still very ill from the bullet wound and considering it had nearly killed him no one had complained about the slow progress to town.
JD was now settled at Nathan's clinic and with the steady stream of visitors was unlikely to get bored. Vin had commented earlier on how popular the young sheriff was especially with the women. This had of course put a crimp in Buck's style as he had thought he was the centre of attention for most of the unattached females in town.
The batwing doors to the saloon opened and Ezra stepped out into the noon day sun. Chris noticed he was wearing his favourite outfit, dark blue pinstripe pants, white ruffled shirt and burgundy cravat, red brocade vest and red jacket with black lapels. The only thing that marred the otherwise pristinely turned out gambler was the white sling that almost seemed part of Ezra's wardrobe these days.
He knew from the lay of the coat that the southerner was wearing his shoulder holster. He was still unable to wear the derringer rig with his arm out of commission although the small gun was probably in a pocket somewhere on his person. He still wore Josiah's left hip holster around his slim waist. Chris looked at the gun and then up to the gambler and wondered exactly how fast this man was. He had seen him draw on several occasions over the last few weeks and had been surprised at the speed. How fast was he really?
Ezra tipped his hat at the gunslinger and walked off in the direction of the church. Chris could see he was on a mission and had no intentions of stopping him. It was about time he had a good long talk with the ex preacher. He watched as Ezra hesitated at the steps to the small church and was ready to get up and make sure he went in. He waited and a few seconds later the gambler took off his low crowned black hat and walked through the door.
Ezra stood inside the entrance to the church wondering yet again why he had felt the need to be here. He could just as well go back to the saloon, play a few hands of poker and nurse a bottle of his best whisky until the small hours of the morning. Why was today different from all the rest? What was it that stopped him from pushing his doubts and fears back into the small locked box he kept in his heart? He knew what it was and was afraid to admit it, he had fallen in love with B J, a woman so different from any other woman he had ever known. This woman was so sure of who she was and what she wanted and was not afraid to go against convention to get it.
His Mother had always taught him to take care of number one, to beware of people who wanted to be friends, to take from others before it was taken from you. She had interfered so many times in his life where women were concerned, pushing that small seed of doubt to the fore where it grew to the mightiest tree. He had learned very early in life to hide his feelings, to only show people what they needed to see.
He was confused and lost, that was why he had found himself on the steps to this small run down church, why he had turned to the only man who seemed to want to listen. That morning he had woken early and had been drawn to a book on Japanese culture that he had acquired years ago. He had opened it at a marked page and had read the highlighted passage. Back then the words had meant nothing to him but now more than ever they were a guiding light, a light that was getting so bright it was hard to see where he was going.
"WHEN THE CHARACTER OF A MAN IS NOT CLEAR TO YOU, LOOK AT HIS FRIENDS"
When he had been without friends he had been a man of little or no character. Now that he had a wealth of friends the meaning of the words overwhelmed him. He only hoped that he could live up to those qualities he had found in his friends.
He shook his head as the doubts began to surface. "I don't even belong here." He said out loud and turned to leave.
"Where do you belong Ezra, if not here?" Josiah's deep resonant voice boomed out at him from the depths of the church. He turned back to see the preacher move out of the shadows and approach him.
"I... I apologise; it was not my intention to disturb you. I shall take my leave."
"Stay right where you are young man, you're not disturbing me and the Lord and I wish to hear what is on your mind." His large hand reached up behind his back and gently moved him to sit at one of the pews.
Ezra began to spill out all the doubts and bad feelings he had ever felt, it was like the flood gates had been opened and now there was no way to hold back the torrents. He spoke of all the things his Mother had taught him the relatives and friends of the family that had put him through hell in his formative years. The hurt and the anger built up in him and threatened to break him in two. Yet he did not cry, his voice was filled with emotion yet no tears fell from his eyes.
He felt the preacher's large hand resting on his shoulder and looked up into his understanding eyes.
"Someday Ezra, you will have to forgive your Mother and all those who have wronged you." Ezra Standish slowly shook his head and turned his gaze elsewhere. It always seemed to come back to that didn't it. Forgiveness.
"I don't think it's in me to forgive Josiah or to forget, but I do thank them." Now it was the older mans turn to be confused.
"What do you mean thank them, thank them for what?" Forgiving a sin was one thing but what did he mean by saying he thanked them?
Ezra lifted his head and looked the preacher in the eye. "I thank them for making me a stronger person, for making it possible for me to face up to the injustices in this world. For teaching me to rely on myself. I have learnt too many times that dropping my barriers allows people to hurt me." He stood and paced the aisle of the small church then turned and faced Josiah and with a deadly earnest in his voice that sent shivers up the large mans spine he continued.
"I promised myself that I would not allow that to happen again, that I would not let any of you hurt me again." He stopped directly in front of Josiah. "You and the others think you know me, you have no idea. You see what I want you to see, you find out what I want you to find out."
His knees suddenly gave way and he found himself in a heap on the floor with the preacher next to him. "And yet, for all my words, my promises I find I am in need of a friend right now. This is a path I cannot take on my own, I don't know which way to turn Josiah and it scares me."
Josiah's heart nearly broke at the words coming out of the gambler's mouth. He held back the words he had wanted to say and instead said the one thing that Ezra Standish needed at that moment. "How can I help you Brother Standish?"
"If I allow myself to love her will it end with me being like Mr Larabee? I don't know if I could take that kind of pain. My Mother would say walk away now, the pain will disappear in time, I will forget her, yet I find myself wanting to chance that pain. Why?"
"Some people go through life Ezra by hiding away from all chance of pain, they make sure that they never fall in love, they never make friends in case they lose them. Yes they go through life and can honestly say they have never been pushed aside, never been abandoned by a lover. But they have never felt passion or had the true warmth of friendship around them, they have never felt a part of something that was bigger than them."
Ezra was mesmerised by every word the preacher said, he felt like a weight had been lifted from him and knew without a doubt what he wanted to do. He reached forward and placed a hand around Josiah's neck and hugged him unashamedly.
"Thank you, my friend, truly I thank you. I know what to do." He looked heavenward and whispered thank you once more. He retrieved his hat and with a new spring in his step and an energy that had been lacking since before he had been shot he walked out of the church with his head held high and headed for the saloon.
He didn't see Josiah come to the door after he had left and didn't hear him whisper quietly into the wind.
"You're welcome... Son."
Saturday Dec 5th Early morning
Shouting in the street woke Ezra, he checked his pocket watch and growled at the ungodly hour, surely not even the birds were up at this time. He turned to bury his head in the soft pillow and jolted upright at the sound of gunfire. That was unmistakably Chris's Peacemaker. Hell of a name for a gun that made so much noise. He pushed himself from the warm bed and stood next to the window with his gun already in his left hand.
The scene in the street below him looked almost chaotic. One man was obviously dead, sprawled on the boardwalk outside the jailhouse. From his position he could see another moving steadily from the direction of the bank. Had some fool tried to rob the bank? Had they not realised it was protected by seven lawmen. Well six at this moment with JD out of action. He turned and carefully aimed at the gunman moving up the street. His bullet lifted the man and dropped him dead, he ducked as two rounds hit the window frame next to his face. OK so there were more of them.
Ezra turned into the room and pulled his boots and pants on; he hastily threw a shirt on as well and took the extra few seconds to push it into his pants. He buckled on the gun belt, re-loaded his weapon and left the room. As he hurried down to the front of the saloon he tucked his right hand into the top of his belt. He had forgotten the sling and although the movement aggravated his shoulder he was not going to take the time to return for it, not when his friends were in danger.
He unlocked the door and pulled it open, slowly checking his line of sight. It was then that he noticed a body lying just inside the door to the jail. It was Vin. He couldn't make out any blood from that distance he could easily miss it but worse of all he couldn't tell if he was alive or not. He looked to his right as another spate of gunfire erupted and noticed B J and her brother concentrating on the alley down by Diggers place. How come so many people were up this early, there ought to be a law against it and where the hell had all these gunmen come from?
He went back into the saloon and headed for the back door, he came out and skirted behind the building, peering up the alley he saw two gunmen hidden behind barrels. Within seconds they were no longer a threat, he moved swiftly to Main Street and looked to his left and saw Buck holding his own against two men up near the livery. Nathan was firing from the balcony of his clinic helping to keep Buck covered. Ezra scanned the street searching for Chris and Josiah and then saw the black clad gunslinger in the alley by Potters store. He was obviously trying to get to Vin. Ezra lay down covering fire and shouted to Chris to move.
Chris heard Ezra's voice from across the street; he looked over and saw him waving his gun to get moving. When the gambler opened fire again he broke cover and skirted along the front of the general store, he pushed back the door to the jail and grabbed Vin's outstretched arm, pulling him into better cover. He slammed the door behind him just as two bullets thudded into the wood.
Bending over the unconscious tracker, Chris checked quickly for any holes. Finding none he moved up and after a small search found a large lump on the back of his head. The skin was split and blood had mingled with the long hair. Chris grabbed the water pitcher from the side and using his bandanna cleaned the blood away from the wound. Vin stirred and moaned and was instantly alert. He sat up with a jerk and would have ended up flat on his back again if not for the strong supporting arms of his friend.
"What happened?" he asked, holding his spinning head in his hands. "Where's Rawlins?" Chris turned to see the door to the cells wide open, no sign of their prisoner.
"Looks like his men finally broke him out, you OK?" The wound had stopped bleeding but Chris was concerned as he saw the uneven pupils in the pain filled unfocussed eyes.
"Yeah, I will be. Where's my gun?" he looked around him and spotted the Mares Leg on the desk. He stood up gingerly grabbing the gunslinger's arm for support as a wave of dizziness swept through him. "How many men has he got out there? Sounds like a whole army." The sounds of gunfire continued in the street.
Chris knew that Vin had a concussion but he also knew he wouldn't stop him from helping his friends. "Come on, let's even the odds a little, think ya can manage on your own?
"Yeah sure, as long as I got something to grab a hold of, I'll be fine."
Ezra kept an eye on the jailhouse and a sense of immense relief came over him when he saw the door open slowly. Chris and a rather wobbly Vin crouched in the entrance and the black clad gunslinger looked over and nodded at him. That was his signal to lay down cover so they could head down the street toward the remaining hostile gunfire. Ezra shifted his aim and also his tactics, he knew one of the men against them was hiding behind a water trough in front of the bank. He aimed his Remington at the large glass window, prayed silently that it would not bring him bad luck and fired three quick rounds.
The broken glass showered the man making him duck, he turned back to the fight after a moment but all he saw was the bone handle of Chris' gun as it smashed into his cheekbone. Chris stood over the unconscious gunman and kicked his gun away; he glanced over to see Rawlins himself coming out of the alley by the undertakers.
He turned his gun to the man that had caused so much trouble over the last few months and was ready to fire on him when a shout stayed his hand. Ezra stood up from his cover in front of the saloon and walked out into the empty quiet street. The gunfire had ceased and the only movement was from the gambler as he walked.
Chris looked over to Rawlins and saw him rise from his crouched position but remain hidden by the edge of the building. He had seen this too many times before, looking back up to Ezra he knew what was coming; usually he was the one lining up for a shoot out. Vin moved up beside him and sat heavily on the boardwalk. His head was spinning and before he could stop himself he threw up in the street. He felt the gunslinger place a hand on his back and turned unfocussed red rimmed eyes to his friend.
"Chris we can't let this happen, Ezra's in no condition to be callin' anyone out."
"You aiming to stop him? I don't think he'd appreciate that some how. Besides he's the one needs to deal with this, and from the looks of you you're in worse shape than he is."
Chris saw Ezra mentally shift gears from the Southern Gent to a deadly gunfighter. At that moment he realised how he had underestimated this man, how he and the rest of the team had taken the gambler for the man he had projected. This man was the finest actor he had ever seen and he knew every role inside out. /I'm glad you're on our side Ezra P Standish./
"Mr Jethro Rawlins, I do believe the time has come for our talk." Shouted Ezra. He stepped to the right getting a better line of sight on the position where Rawlins was hiding. "Or are you now a spineless coward as well as a poor loser. Either way sir I will effect a dissolution to this now."
B J quietly moved along the boardwalk and settled in next to Chris and Vin, her eyes never left the man standing alone in the street. She thought how calm he looked, how his manner showed how totally in control he was. /Damn he looked good in that shirt,/ she pulled her thoughts back to the tense situation unfolding before her.
"I sir am no coward, and I will have you know I have been triumphant on numerous occasions on the field of honour. You will withdraw your accusation or I shall have satisfaction." Rawlins pushed himself out from the cover of the alley and strode into the middle of the street.
"I have no doubt Sir that your triumphs were as disreputable and fraudulent as your dealings were in New Orleans when I first made your acquaintance." Chris and Vin listened in total confusion to the exchange of words. Neither of them fully understood what was being said, it was hard enough at the best of times understanding Ezra when he came out with $10 words now there were two Southern Gents and the ante had risen to $20 a word.
Rawlins stepped forward and at that moment lifted the gun in his right hand and fired. Ezra's body never moved but his left hand flashed to the holster and came up with a speed that astounded Chris Larabee. The expression on the gambler's face never changed as Rawlins collapsed to the ground with a look of utter surprise now set on his features. He had died knowing that this fresh-faced Southern boy had beaten him again.
After what felt like an eternity of silence Ezra turned slightly to face Chris and the others. His brain registered the sharp crack of a rifle a split second before fireworks exploded in his head. He never felt the ground underneath him as he fell and didn't hear the volley of guns discharge towards an upper window at the Gem Hotel.
Almost as soon as Ezra hit the dirt Nathan and Josiah were running from the clinic and the Church. The healer pushed Chris away from the wounded gambler and examined the ugly wound that ran across the left side of his head.
"I need something to stop this bleeding, quick." Josiah stood and ran into the saloon, he returned seconds later with a hand full of tablecloths. Nathan rolled one up and placed it against the bleeding wound. "Hold this tight Josiah." The big man placed his hand on the cloth and pushed while Nathan wrapped Ezra's head. During all this the gambler never stirred and but for the steady rise and fall of his chest he appeared dead.
"Let's get him to the clinic so I can take a look." Josiah moved to pick up the smaller man but was stopped as Chris snaked his hands under the limp form and easily pulled him into his arms. He stood and moved with as much speed as possible to the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic. He placed the unconscious man on the bed and fell to the floor next to him, unable to stand.
"Is he gonna be all right Nathan?" It was more a begging plea than a question. The gunslinger had never felt so helpless in all his life. One minute he had been stood there, pride pushing out his chest at the way Ezra had handled himself against Rawlins and the next he had been firing on a hidden shooter that had just possibly killed the man. If Ezra had not turned to face them in that split second then he would now be dead.
"I don't know, it's a deep wound and with all this blood I can't tell if there's a fracture." He looked around him at the sea of faces and stopped at the Preacher. "Josiah you stay, the rest of ya get out, I can't work with all you in here. Buck take some bandages and a bottle of whisky and clean up Vin's head and then get him to lie down, I'll see him later."
"I'm fine Nate, just a bump." Vin hated the idea of having good whisky poured over his head. Yeah the alcohol would sure clean the wound but he would end up on the ceiling from the pain. He had been hoping that the black man had not noticed his condition.
"Yeah sure ya are Vin, you usually go around bumping in to things and throwin' up for no reason don't you? The room emptied out, leaving Nathan and Josiah working over the unconscious gambler. In the corner of the room JD watched in silence as the two men worked. He felt totally helpless lying there as the two fought for over an hour to stop the bleeding. For a moment JD feared the worst as Nathan slid to the floor exhausted, but was relieved to see the steady rise and fall of the chest. He closed his eyes and prayed that Ezra would pull through.
Monday Dec 7th B J's Birthday
The morning sun pushed it's way through the flimsy curtain that covered the window in the clinic. The shadows pushed back and the new day saw Bettina Jane Roslin sitting once more next to the man she loved. He had not moved for the last two days and apart from a fever that had lasted for only a few hours he now lay with no outward signs of ever waking up. Josiah and Nathan had managed to get water and thin broth into him as he slept but he was totally unaware of anything around him.
She checked the time and realised that it was morning, Larabee would be along soon to take over the watch. She leaned forward and began to talk. She took him through all her plans for the ranch, the things she wanted to do together. For some reason she started to talk through the clothes he habitually wore, starting with the fine cotton shirts, and the colourful vests. She detailed every item and then questioned him on the need for such fastidiousness. She then described the clothes she had worn when she had gone to Eagle Bend and knew he would have fallen at her feet at how different she had looked.
The door to the clinic opened and Chris Larabee walked in, she could see by the red rimmed eyes and the flush on his cheeks that he had not slept much and that he had kept a bottle company again.
"How's he doin'?" he asked as he settled his wiry frame into the chair B J had just left.
"No change, I was hoping he might wake up today, bein' as it's my birthday." She smiled and chuckled to herself. "I was just telling him about the clothes I wore at Eagle Bend, I reckon he'd have had a shock seeing me in that get up."
"I know I got a shock, but I must admit it was one of the most pleasant shocks I've had for a long time." She smiled and turned to leave. "Don't forget that lawyer of yours wants to see ya later, said to make it around noon at the restaurant. Seems he's bought the whole place out for 2 hours wants us all to be there. He's even paying for a meal."
"Would be nice if we could all be there." She sighed and looked at the sleeping face.
"Yeah I know what ya mean."
Noon came around quickly and B J found herself stood outside the restaurant. She was nervous about going in, what had her father placed in his will? Would she still be able to control the estate? She looked up as Buck and J D walked up to her, she was pleased to see the young sheriff on his feet. It had been touch and go for a while but the last few days he had improved dramatically. He was still pale and weakened easily but with Buck around him all the time he was well looked after if a little smothered.
"Come on ma'am let's get you inside. Why that's a pretty blouse you have on, I don't recall seein' it before?"
"Thank you Buck, it was a present from Mary Travis, she said it was about time I had some female clothes. I must admit it is pretty, and goes quite well with my tanned leather pants don't ya think." Buck eyed the shapely legs and gulped. He had never thought that a pair of buckskin pants would look so good. Hell Vin wore them all the time and they never made his legs look like that. He took his hat off and ushered B J and his young friend into the door. He shook his head, let out a big sigh and wafted the hat in front of his face. Man if only... he thought. Ezra was one hell of a lucky man.
B J looked around her recognising all the faces, Nettie and Casey had arrived and were sat at one of the tables, and Mary Travis was sat talking to Chris Larabee. Buck and JD found a seat next to Vin Tanner who was nursing a mug of hot herbal tea. The look on his face showed that he did not like the contents very much but the effects of his concussion still caused him trouble so Nathan had prescribed willow bark with peppermint oil to help with the pain and the nausea. He looked up at the black healer and scowled, he was sure a shot of whisky would do the same job and taste a whole lot better than this.
B J walked over to Nathan surprised that he had left the clinic. "Who's sat with Ezra Mr Jackson?" She turned as her brother walked in and placed his arm around her shoulder.
"That army surgeon Dr Coleman said he would sit with him for awhile and Josiah's on his way down now." As if on cue the large ex preacher walked into the restaurant and pulled a chair up next to Chris.
Simmons walked in from the back of the restaurant carrying a large brown folder. He placed it on an empty table and looked up taking in all the faces he had requested to be there.
"I assume Mr Standish is not able to be with us." He said in his precise New York accent. "I take it you are all aware of the significance of this gathering?" he looked around him with a questioning glare almost daring anyone to speak.
"Good, then I shall begin. Miss Roslin, I have here the last will and testament of your father the late Mr James Roslin. Due to the uhm unique nature of some of those present I shall not read word for word as I am sure most of you will not fully comprehend the legal language. Suffice to say that the entire estate goes to Miss Bettina Jane Roslin with an allowance of $100 per month to go to Major James Edward Roslin for the entire time he remains in the U S Army. After such time his allowance will be decided by Miss Roslin." He took a breath and sipped from a glass of water.
None of this had been a surprise to Bettina and she was happy about the clause taking care of her brother. "How much is the estate valued at Mr Simmons." She had a rough idea but was not prepared for the figure the lawyer came out with.
"In actual liquid currency you have a little over $250,000 in a secured trust fund that is now in your complete control. The value of horses, real estate and sundries can of course not be valued unless it is sold but the latest figures which were taken from last years property values puts the three ranches and all its contents including the horses at just under $400,000. To put it bluntly Miss Roslin you are now one of the wealthiest clients I have ever had the pleasure of dealing with."
B J was stunned; she backed up to a chair and sat down heavily. Chris put a glass of whisky in front of her and she drank it down without even tasting it. Everyone in the room sat in silent awe, they had figured due to all the trouble that she was due to inherit a fortune but had never imagined it to be so much.
"There is one final stipulation in the will that Mr Roslin Senior insisted on." He paused, reluctant to reveal this last point.
"Go ahead Mr Simmons, what is it?" Major Roslin moved closer to his sister, he knew what that detail was and needed to be next to her, unsure as to what her reaction would be.
"Mr Roslin stated that if you were not married by the time you were 26 then the bulk of the estate would revert back to the Trustees until a male blood relative was found. You would be left with a more than adequate allowance of $300 per month." The colour drained from B J's face as she realised what her father had done. He had trusted her with the estate but wanted his only daughter married in order to produce an heir to the family fortune.
Nettie Wells stood up and moved to stand next to the lawyer.
"Well I guess with that all over and done with we can get down to eating. Casey go call Inez, I believe she has offered to cook for us all today." She strode over to B J and took a hand.
"Come on missy lets get some food into you, you can think about all this later at the saloon, I guess no one will mind if I tell ya that were plannin' a little shindig for ya."
"Thank you Nettie, I apologise for my behaviour, I am just a little shocked that is all. Please excuse me I need to speak to Mr Sanchez for a moment." She walked over to the preacher and after a moment the two walked outside.
"Mr Sanchez I need to ask you a very big favour."
"Anything Miss Roslin, you only need to ask."
"I need you to speak to the others and make sure that no one tells Ezra about the will, I don't want him to know at least not yet."
"Why don't you want him to know? You can trust him, he does love you and although he has been free with other peoples money in the past it is all in the past."
"I know he loves me Mr Sanchez and I do trust him but this amount of money can put a strain on any relationship. I want him to make his decision free of that pressure. Do you understand?" She wasn't sure if she was making any sense.
"I do understand my dear, you want him to choose you and not the money. Don't worry I'll speak to the others and have no fear he'll do the right thing." They turned to go back into the restaurant. The food smell was making her hungry, she was glad she had spoken to Josiah.
"Now all we need is for Ezra to wake up."
Thursday Dec 12th
She watched quietly as Nathan examined Ezra. He had woken up the day before with a large headache to find a sea of concerned but happy faces all around him. They had filled him in on everything that had happened including the things he had missed like B J's birthday party. Buck had great pleasure in spilling the beans about how B J had worn women's clothes and had all the men falling over themselves to get what ever she wanted. Vin regaled him with the fantastic cake that Nettie had baked for the occasion; he apologised that none of it was left. Nathan told him of all the whisky they had drunk and how even JD had won a few hands of poker.
B J looked over at the black healer as his expert fingers traced the healed bullet wound in his shoulder, his hand moved to press gently on the almost healed collarbone. He then prodded and poked around the bullet wound to his scalp, it was healing nicely and no longer needed a bandage. Ezra had removed his shirt to allow Nathan to check him over. Her gaze dropped to take in the muscled arms, the biceps rippled under the tanned smooth skin. She took stock of the well-formed pectoral muscles running across his chest. B J flinched each time he did when Nathan's fingers found a tender spot.
"Well I guess you'll live, I'm gonna let ya go back to ya own room but you check back with me tomorrow I want to make sure that head wound is clean." Nathan turned and saw B J looking at him; he realised that he was in the way and mumbled as he left the room.
She stood and walked over to him reaching for the white ruffled shirt that had fallen to the floor. He slipped his hand round her waist and pulled her gently towards him, her heart jumped a few beats at the nearness of his naked skin next to her. Dropping the shirt she laced her hand into his curly brown locks revelling in the feel of the silky hair as it slipped through her long fingers.
She felt his breath through her thin shirt as he buried his face into her shoulder. After a few moments he lifted his head, his emerald green eyes bored into her and she felt like she was drowning.
"Will you marry me?" He said it so quietly that she almost missed it. She pulled away from his grasp, looked at him and walked slowly to the door. She turned and looked back at him and gave him the biggest smile he had ever seen. She opened the door and walked out.
He looked at the empty space before him, mouth open in shock that she had left without answering. The doorknob turned and B J walked back into the room, she stood before him with a look on her face that made Ezra P Standish, gambler, con man and peacekeeper sit up straight. He smiled as his heart swelled nearly to bursting. She raised an eyebrow, smiled and winked at him.
THE END (maybe !!!)
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[i] This is the actual medical procedure that is performed for a collapsed lung.
[ii] Carao powder is made from the Carao fruit, which is native to Central America and has been used in that country for generations as an anti anaemia product. It is usually taken in syrup form.
[iii] Daniel H Chamberlain was the actual Governor of South Carolina between 1874 & 1876
[iv] New Orleans was the third largest city in America at the time of the Civil War, it suffered a decline due to losing its cotton and sugar trade and did not fully recover until the early 1900s.
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