Ezra Standish was angry... no, that was not strong enough... he was absolutely furious, and he made sure the other six men knew it, snapping sarcastic, biting comments to anyone who came within listening distance. He had been in the saddle since well before the sun was up, spending the early morning riding dawn patrol, out under the growing warmth of the sun with no release from the boiling heat as the day wore on.
Finally Ezra had arrived back to find the town in uproar. Some down-on-their-luck cowboys had robbed the bank, leaving Edward Sims, the middle-aged clerk, pale and shaken as he nervously explained what had happened. Yet, while nobody had been hurt or even been aware of the robbery taking place as Edward had been the only one in the bank at the time, the cowboys had managed to get away with a few hundred dollars. Chris Larabee was determined to bring the money back to its rightful owners. So when Ezra had ridden into the stable after his patrol, it had been to witness the other six men saddling their horses and heading out after the robbers.
Larabee had taken one look at the sweat-soaked, tired gambler and told him not to get off his horse as he was going with them. Standish had started to argue the point, but had been silenced by the deadly Larabee glare. The silence had lasted until the town was out of sight behind them, then his grousing had begun again in earnest.
Now, seven hours later, darkness was starting to descend and they were still eating the dust of the cowboys. Standish was at the back of the pack and was almost nodding in the saddle as exhaustion bit at his body. They had not stopped since they had left town.
"It's getting too dark to follow them, Chris." Standish glanced up at the sound of the voice and saw that it was Tanner talking to Larabee. Slowly the gambler edged his horse closer, shamelessly listening in on the conversation.
"So we stop here for the night?" Larabee questioned, not liking the idea of giving the cowboys any more distance between them.
"Yeah... they're going to have to stop soon anyway, if they haven't already... that or risk hurting their horses; these rocks make travelling in the dark too dangerous," Vin answered, knowing instinctively where Chris's concerns lay.
"All right," Chris finally agreed, "we'll find a place to camp tonight and go after them at first light."
"Mr Larabee," Standish suddenly spoke up, his voice tired, his eyes barely open as he swayed in his saddle and said, "I will willingly pay the money back to the bank, if you would only consider calling off this foolish escapade...." The next thing Ezra knew, he was being dragged off his horse and roughly shaken by Chris who was yelling, his strong hands tightening the shirt about the gambler's neck to choking point.
"I've about had it with your whining and moaning... you're being paid to protect the town and protect it you will, even if it means riding for the next forty days to catch those bastards... do you understand me...?" The words were accompanied by a rough shaking and Ezra realised that this was how a rabbit felt when caught in the jaws of a wolf.
"What the hell!!!"
"CHRIS..." Other voices broke in, as hands attempted to separate the two men. Finally Buck and Vin were able to get between Larabee and the shaken object of his temper, tearing the gunslinger's hands off his victim. Ezra slumped to the ground when he was released, coughing as his shirt was released and he dragged air into his strained lungs.
The gunslinger was fighting the hands holding him and, lunging forward, he snarled, "I've had it with you, Standish.... If you don't want to do this then get out... GET OUT NOW... and you'd better be out of Four Corners by the time we get back." Then he snatched himself away from the other two men and stormed back to his horse. Throwing himself into his saddle, he disappeared into the growing darkness.
"Ezra... you all right?" Vin asked, moving to stand closer to the other man, his keen eyes checking him out, not sure whether or not his concern would be rebuffed.
"Of course, Mr Tanner," the gambler snapped, dragging his shattered dignity about him like a battered shield, before he continued nastily, "I find that I am becoming very used to Mr Larabee's physical attacks upon my person. As I am your ignoring the situation until it comes to blows.... Your early defence of my feelings might have prevented it."
Ezra spoke more out of shock from the actual attack than any anger at the tracker's question, but Tanner felt a swell of anger at having his concern so roughly tossed back at him, and Ezra's assumption that he could somehow sway Chris's anger from the gambler. The tracker knew that the only way to do that was for the gambler to keep his mouth shut, and that was an unlikely event. Vin sighed in frustration and stormed away, without saying another word. Mounting his horse, he rode out after Larabee.
"Well done, Ezra. Your ability to make people dislike you is almost as great as your ability to cheat them," Nathan snapped as he pushed his horse forward and passed by the still-shaking gambler. Josiah just shook his head and followed his friend.
"I do not cheat," Ezra called after them, then sighed. Why did he bother? Nathan would never see him as anything other than a cheat and a liar. Why he stayed with the group was beyond him, and now it looked like he had his opportunity to leave them, Chris's blessing in fact.
Buck picked up Ezra's hat and, brushing it against his leg, offered wisely, "If I was you, Ez, I'd stay out of Chris's way for a while." Seeing that Standish was ignoring the offered hat, he let it fall back to the ground before he too moved towards his horse, shaking his head sadly as he followed after the others.
JD lingered for a few more seconds, holding out the reins to Ezra's horse, which he had rode after to collect when the animal had started away at having his owner pulled from his back. "Here Ezra..." he said finally, lamely offering the reins when the gambler showed no signs of taking them.
Standish grabbed the reins and, embarrassed to be seen shaking in front of the youngest member of the group, snapped, "You'd best go after them... after all it wouldn't do for Mr Larabee to direct his anger towards you."
"You coming, Ezra?" JD asked, squinting in the dark, trying to see the other man's face. He could tell from the gambler's stance that all was not well.
"JD... come on. We don't have time for this," Buck called from out of the darkness.
Ezra was unable to account for the sudden anger he felt towards the six other men who insisted on treating him like a lesser member of their group. He was growing tired of being their verbal punching bag, so he snapped, "Please Mr Dunne, unlike you I am quite acquainted with finding my way in the dark and I will be fine."
The younger man bit his lip, before he nodded once. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but in the end he remained silent and rode off after his other friends.
When the young sheriff disappeared into the darkness, Ezra felt his shoulders slump. He had been a fool to ever believe that this day would not come. His own mother had warned him of it often enough and now Larabee had proved her words right. With very mixed emotions he bent down and picked up his hat and, after shaking it clean he pushed it firmly onto his head, his mind made up. He swung into his saddle and whirled his horse about. Larabee had finally given him an order that he felt he could successfully complete without the other man's temper coming down on him.
By the time the other six men returned to Four Corners, Ezra Standish would no longer be in residence.
The night was cold, but Ezra determinedly pulled his jacket more firmly about him and continued to carefully guide his horse over the rocky terrain. Vin was right; it was madness to try to ride over this land at night, but the gambler's anger kept him moving. He wanted to reach town, gather his few belongings and be long gone before the others returned.
Finally, after the horse had stumbled once again, nearly losing its footing, he admitted that he was pushing even his luck. He pulled the animal to a stop and slowly clambered off, his exhaustion catching up with him and he held weakly onto the saddle for several moments while a wave of dizziness overcame him.
He had been foolish to gamble the previous night away, especially when he knew that he had dawn patrol to cover, but the chance of playing poker against the money-flushed cowboys had been just too great to pass up. So he had spent the whole night playing and had finally rushed straight from the poker table, without even breakfasting, to the livery stable, just managing to get out of town before Chris had appeared, his anger rising at Ezra being late for patrol. Then the pace that Larabee had set on the long trek across the plains after the cowboys had only allowed for dried food to be eaten, and swiftly swallowed warm water from their canteens to be drunk. Ezra, believing that he was only going to be participating in the dawn patrol, had not packed food in his saddlebags and had already depleted most of his canteen before returning to town that morning. It had been a long, thirsty, hungry day for him, and now it looked as if he would have to wait for the coming of dawn again before he could find himself some food or water.
With a heartfelt sigh he began to remove the saddle and take care of his horse, which he felt was his only friend at the moment. With a short mutter of annoyance at his self-pity, he pushed those melancholy thoughts aside and, straightening his shoulders, finished his set task before he made himself up an uncomfortable bed. He was deeply asleep a few seconds after his head hit the hard saddle.
"Where is he?" JD muttered once again, looking towards the edge of the camp, unable to hide his growing concerns for the missing gambler.
"JD," Buck said, his tone quiet as he shot a look over towards their still-fuming leader. "He's just taken my words to heart and is staying out of Chris's way."
The younger man shot his friend an annoyed look and, shaking his head, answered sharply, "No, Buck... you didn't see him. He was shaking and... and...."
"Hell, JD..." Buck laughed, wanting to distract the boy from his worry - after all, Ezra was a big boy now and quite capable of looking after himself, even out in the plains. "I'd be shaking if old Chris had ridden into me like that...."
"No Buck," the other man insisted, annoyed that the womaniser was refusing to see what he was trying to tell him. "This wasn't like that... this was...." He stopped, gathering his thoughts, and finished, "Chris was wrong... he ain't got no call to attack Ezra like that."
"JD," Nathan suddenly butted in, having heard the conversation and not understanding why JD was taking the matter so much to heart - after all, a week barely passed without an altercation between the two men. "Ezra's been asking for it since we left town; all he's done is moan and whine."
The younger man turned on the healer and argued fiercely, "But that's what Ezra always does... and he did cover dawn patrol this morning, and Inez said that he was up all night playing poker."
"Which he shouldn't have done if he knew he had patrol," Nathan shot back. As far as he was concerned Ezra was in the wrong and that was that.
JD was not happy and stated firmly, "Well, I still don't think it's right. Chris has no call to attack him.... What if he leaves, like Chris said?"
Silence followed his words, and he frowned as he finally saw a shimmering of concern on the others' faces. He pushed home his thoughts as he stated, "I'm not sure I'd stay if Chris spoke to me like that... it was nastier than normal. He... he told him to go!"
"Chris didn't tell Ezra to go," Buck said, seeing a way to ignore the nagging worry that JD had started in his breast.
JD snorted in disgust and tossed the dregs of his coffee on the ground before he stood up and said, "I'm going to check the horses." He moved off and left the other two men to their thoughts.
"Ezra rode in yet?" Larabee asked the tracker as the other man moved up to take over the watch. They were on a slight rise above the camp, with Chris checking the opposite direction from which Ezra would arrive.
"Damn him..." the gunslinger cursed, knowing that he was being harsh towards the gambler, but in his eyes no rougher than usual.
"You were a bit hard on him Chris, maybe he's decided to camp outside for the night," Vin said, hiding his own concern.
"He always has to keep opening that damn mouth of his," the other man grumbled, trying to justify his own burst of temper towards the gambler. Knowing that Vin would not comment, he pushed that aside and asked instead, "How much further ahead of us do you think they are?"
"About an hour... maybe two... no more than that. Their horses are tired and they don't appear to know the land."
"Jason Wagon Canyon," Chris ventured, a small smile slipping across his features.
"Yeah, they're heading right for it. It's a box canyon... but from their path, I don't think they realise that."
"Can we overtake them?"
"Nah... not before they enter the canyon, but it might just give us enough time to catch up with them," the tracker smiled. Then, seeing the gunslinger glance once more back towards their camp, he continued, "Ezra'll be along shortly... why don't you get some rest? I'll take over the watch."
Larabee opened his mouth to protest, then seeing the look in the other's eyes he smiled weakly and, nodding in defeat, left to seek the comfort of his bedroll. Sleep eluded him, however, as he lay awake listening for the approach of the gambler's horse. Towards dawn he finally realised that it was a sound he was not going to hear and he was unable to explain the twisting sensation that caught at his gut.
It was a quiet group who continued after the bank robbers the next morning. There had been no sign of Ezra during the night, and no mention was made of him as they ate a cold breakfast and saddled up.
As Vin had predicted, the cowboys were making their way towards Jason Wagon Canyon, mistakenly believing it to be short cut across the mountain range that stretched out before them. Jason Wagon Canyon was named after the leader and the first wagon train that had discovered it, several years before. They had entered it believing it a true passage, only to discover that it led to a dead end, narrowing at the end to such an extent that turning the wagons was almost impossible. With the coming of winter it had cost them precious time, time that had ultimately cost several wagon owners and their families their lives.
Seeing this, the six men who protected the small town of Four Corners sped up and, by mid-morning, were in position at the mouth of the canyon to ambush the cowboys when they returned.
As expected, several hours later the sound of returning horses could be heard, along with curses of anger from the men at the time they had lost in entering the canyon. As the four cowboys came into view, the six peacekeepers were ready.
The fight was short and relatively painless, as the cowboys were taken totally by surprise. They soon knew themselves to be utterly outgunned, and only one was injured in the arm before they were throwing away their weapons and holding up their arms in surrender.
The leader of the captured cowboys demanded to know why they had been attacked and were now being held prisoner. What had they done wrong? All the while Larabee roughly searched each of the men, looking for the stolen money.
"Where's the money you stole when you robbed the bank?" the gunslinger finally demanded, standing back, his eyes flashing angrily. "Where is it?"
The leader looked totally shocked and surprised, and then he burst out laughing, which slowly trailed off when he realised with a sinking feeling that the deadly man before him was not joking. He began to splutter, "Robbed the bank...? I... I... we didn't... rob the.... The clerk... he...." He tumbled to a stop and started to sweat as he realised exactly why they had been taken prisoner. Swallowing hard, he stammered, "Jake here... he just wanted to see if he could sell his watch...." He pointed to the man in question, who nodded his head vigorously as the leader continued, "We lost everything to that gambler... we had no money and we've been drifting since our last job.... Anyway, the bank was empty... the teller said the bank manager was out of town and he couldn't buy the watch... so we left."
Larabee looked towards Tanner and Wilmington, who had been listening to the cowboys, and all had to admit that his words had the ring of truth to them. "Why did you run?" the gunslinger demanded.
"Run?" the leader repeated in confusion. "We didn't run. The clerk told us that there was a rancher hiring men in Pine Ridge for a cattle drive, but we had to be there as soon as possible. He told us about this short cut... damn useless short cut, it's a dead end." The man spat his disgust towards the desert floor, then cringed as the spittle came close to the gunslinger's boot. He swallowed hard and awaited his fate.
"You willing to come back to Four Corners to get this cleared up?" Larabee asked, now not so sure that the robbery had taken place as described by the bank clerk.
The leader shot a look over towards his companions before he nodded in resignation, insisting, "Sure, whatever... we ain't ever done nothing wrong...."
"We're gonna have to tie you up, just to be safe," Chris said, and again the leader nodded; he just wanted this matter sorted out, otherwise his friends and himself were looking at some mighty hard time in prison. He could tell from the others' expressions that the job in Pine Ridge was more than likely a lie as well so they had nothing to lose, but having this hanging over their heads was as threatening as an actual noose. Soon the prisoners were secured to their horses and everyone was heading back to town.
Larabee and Tanner rode at the head of the small column, and as they steadily made their way back to town they discussed the change of events. "Do you reckon it was Sims?" Vin asked, thinking of the bank clerk.
"Could have been, but why?" Chris questioned. "He could have made off with the money at any time." He paused before he finished, "Unless he wanted us out of town for a while...."
"Why?" Vin asked, squinting into the sun, trying to gauge how long it would take to return to Four Corners.
"I don't know; maybe he's after more than just a few hundred dollars and figures he's got a better chance with us out of the way." He took off his hat and wiped at his brow with the back of his hand as he continued, "I've got a bad feeling about this, and," he paused, before he swallowed and said in a quieter tone, "and whatever it is, Ezra's walking into it alone." Seeing the look of fear flash across the tracker's face, he turned in his saddle and shouted, "Let's ride." The horses leapt into a gallop as one, and soon the ten men were racing back across the land, the two men in front hoping that they made it back to town before they lost the seventh member of their group.
Ezra awoke the next morning and, after making himself a hurried meal of the meagre offerings he discovered in his saddlebag, he drank the last of his water and saddled his horse. The nearer he got to the town, the more he started to wonder if he had done the right thing.
The day before, his exhaustion had led him to believe that leaving Four Corners and the other six men was the only sensible action he could take. Now... now that the dawn of a new day had come, he was not so sure if leaving was what he really wanted. He hated the feeling that he was making a big mistake.
For the first time in his life he enjoyed the warmth of companionship; he enjoyed the knowledge that when someone called him a cheat or drew down on him in the saloon, at least another one or two guns would appear to protect his back; he liked the way JD silently looked up to him and asked his advice, the way that Buck would share a joke of his exploits with women; how Vin trusted him enough to ask for help with his illiteracy - even after the first rebuff from the drunken gambler, he had returned a few weeks later to ask to borrow a book. When Ezra had discovered that Vin was learning to read from Mary he had also offered to help, thereby allowing Vin to practice his words more often.
Ezra also liked how Josiah would appear and, over a game of chess, they would discuss theological subjects. Even Nathan had been making an effort to include the gambler in some of his activities - admittedly, the gambler was still subject to the healer's harsh words on his profession, but even that he had learned to survive. Lastly, even Chris had been more accepting of him lately, giving him the jobs that would take the gambler to Eagle Bend or another nearby town, so that he could spend the night and play a hand or two of poker. Ezra had felt that Chris did this because he understood how dull and confining the small town of Four Corners could become to the nomadic gambler.
That was until the previous day, when it had all fallen apart so disastrously. While Ezra could admit that he may have been at fault for some of it, he could not accept that he deserved such a violent reaction from the leader of the seven. It was this knowledge that prevented him from turning his horse about and making his way back to the other six men. He was a proud man and had made his decision, and he had lived his life by never going back on a decision once it was made. He could not afford to be seen as weak; his profession would never allow it. Larabee's actions had clearly informed Ezra that, no matter what he did, he would be subjected to these irrational bursts of temper from the gunslinger and that the other five would make no effort to intervene on his behalf. That, more than anything, had wounded the gambler, and it was a pain that he decided he didn't like and would therefore eliminate the source by leaving the town.
He made good time getting back to the town and arrived early afternoon. Knowing that his horse needed rest, he decided to spend the rest of the day in town and would leave early the next morning. He felt certain that the others would not be back in town until at least the next afternoon.
As he left the livery stable he was surprised to see that the town appeared to be in some kind of uproar and, spying Mary Travis talking to a very distressed Mrs Potter, he quickly made his way over to investigate.
On seeing him Mary let out a sigh of relief and, rushing forward, she grabbed his arm, saying in a panicked tone, "The others... where are the others... are they with you?" She looked over his shoulder as if to see them and he frowned at this lack of faith in his own ability, but seeing the distress of both women he pushed his hurt feelings aside... again.
"I am afraid to inform you that they are not with me at this time, Mrs Travis..." Ezra replied dryly, still slightly disconcerted. Carefully he removed her clutching hand from his jacket, but kept it held within his own as he gently patted it to help calm her down. "What appears to be the problem?" he asked.
"Edward Sims... he robbed the bank and... and...." Mary paused, her face turning towards the woman beside her.
Mrs Potter continued, her eyes flashing frantically, her hair in disarray and her face wet with unstoppable tears. "He's taken my baby... Mr Standish," she stammered, "my sweet little Emmalou. How could a man do that... to take such a young child... what kind of a beast is he?" She turned searching eyes on the gambler, before she burst into more tears.
Ezra, not sure how to answer the woman and needing more information, said in his best command tone, "Please control yourself madam, and tell me exactly what has happened?"
His words had the desired effect on the distressed shop owner, who swallowed a couple of times before she began, in a much calmer tone, "I sent... I sent Emmalou to get me some... some change from the bank this morning.... She never came back." Tears slipped again, but she bravely attempted to control them.
Mary stepped forward to comfort her, pulling Mrs Potter into a warm embrace as she shot a beseeching look towards the handsome gambler, before she continued with the story. "Mr Johnson and some other men went after him... but they have just arrived back...." Mary's tone clearly indicated her disgust. "He apparently fired on them, so they turned back... rather than continue after him."
Ezra winced, as he could imagine the effort it had taken for the local townsmen of Four Corners to build up their courage to go after the kidnapper in the first place. "Why did he take Emmalou?" he asked in some confusion, trying to steer the hysterical woman out of the street to somewhere quieter. He wished that Nathan were there to help assist her; the gambler knew that the healer would have some herbs that would help soothe the distraught woman's nerves.
Again it was Mary who answered; "Apparently Mr Sims was in the middle of robbing the bank when Emmalou walked in on him. Her entrance distracted Mr Sims enough for Mr Hillary, the bank manager, to attack him. I'm not sure what happened then, but it looks like Edward hit him with his gun and then took Emmalou as a hostage to get out of town."
Ezra, now fully understanding the situation, realised that if he was going to help the young lady he was going to have to act fast. He smiled reassuringly at both women, saying with more confidence than he actually felt, "Do not worry Mrs Potter, I will do my best to ensure that Emmalou is home with your good self at the earliest opportunity." He paused in thought before he added to Mary, "Mr Larabee and the others will be back sometime tomorrow, I should think... could you please inform them of what has happened, if I am not back before then?" Seeing the grateful nod his decision to go after Sims earned him from the two women, he hurried on, "Now, if you ladies will excuse me...." He relished the thankful look that Mary Travis gave him and fully understood the attraction that Chris Larabee had for the woman. He tipped his hat and departed.
He swiftly made his way to the saloon and, seeing Mr Johnson leaning up against the bar with a couple of other dust-covered men, he moved closer and spoke a few brisk words with them. By the time he left, he knew exactly where they had encountered Sims and how the man had fired on them, driving them back. He looked at the food sitting on the table in front of a cowboy wistfully and, shaking his head, pushed his own hunger aside, as he knew that with every mouthful he took he could be lessening the life of the child.
He left his own horse in the livery, with firm instructions to feed him well and ensure that he was rested - after all, the poor animal had had just as hard a time of it as his owner. Secretly Ezra was hoping to find the child quickly, and return to town with enough time left to ensure his departure before the others arrived back the next day.
Several hours later, Ezra had picked up and was closely following the trail that Edward Sims had left. He knew that the bank clerk was no common outlaw and had obviously thought long and hard about the robbery he had committed. It was now clear to the gambler that Sims had set in motion a chain of events to get the seven regulators out of the town, so that he could rob the bank with the highest chance of success. The only thing that made the gambler anxious was the fact that Sims had kidnapped the young daughter of Mrs Potter. This worried Ezra greatly, because Sims was not a common outlaw and he might see killing her his only option, or leaving her out in the wilds to fend for herself, which Standish knew would be as deadly as placing a gun to her young head.
Edward Sims, Ezra noted, was making no effort to cover his tracks and it was not long before he found the place where the altercation with the townsmen had taken place. After carefully checking the area he realised that Sims was still not hurrying to make his escape, and this could only be because he now felt that he had successfully chased off the only danger following him.
Ezra followed the trail into a copse of trees and shortly heard raised voices ahead of him. He could clearly tell that Edward Sims was arguing with Emmalou; the young girl was demanding to be let down, her high, childish tone carrying clearly in the open air. The bank clerk was fighting to hold on to his temper as he snarled curses at the youngster that she could not possibly understand the meaning of - at least, the gambler hoped she didn't understand. Ezra knew that he had to act fast, as the unlikely bank robber was fast losing his control and, with the loss of the posse, he now had no reason to keep her alive.
"Will you shut up, you whiny little bitch," snarled Sims again, his own tone rising in pitch.
"Let me go... I want my mama. I want my mama..." shouted back the young girl, terror and panic evident in her tone. The gambler could clearly hear her struggling with her kidnapper as she cried out, "Let me go... let me go, you... you animal." The man let out a yell and Ezra knew that the young lady had done something incredibly silly to gain her release.
"You bit me," confirmed Sims with a raging snarl, before he ranted, "You bitch..." this was followed by a sharp slap and the child crying out in pain. "Bite me, will you... you little heathen." This was followed by another slap and again the young girl yelped. This time she continued to weep as Sims shouted at her, "Shut up... shut up, or I will SHUT you up." There was an edge of hysteria in the man's voice that informed Ezra that he had to act quickly before the man totally lost control of his senses and killed the child.
Ezra had been using his time wisely, and had dismounted and was attempting to get near them. He could see through the bushes that Sims had drawn his gun and was swinging it wildly about in front of the young girl, who lay sprawled on the ground where Sims' attack had obviously sent her. Off to one side a horse stood, slowly munching the sparse grass, not at all put out by the fighting going on near him.
The girl attempted to stand but could only make it to her knees, her long dress hindering her movements. She struggled to get away but blindly she moved in the direction of the horse, which pranced about at suddenly finding a child between him and his feed. She let out a cry of total fear and, still on her hands and knees, attempted to scramble away, out from under the horse. Sims, seeing only that she was trying to escape, levelled his gun in her general direction and let loose a shot. Thankfully it missed her, but she let out a shriek of pure terror.
Ezra, knowing that he had no time to waste, let out a cry of his own and pushed into the clearing, drawing his gun as he did so. Yet he was not fast enough, as Sims, seeing an attack from another direction, lifted his gun and fired blindly. It was a chance shot, but it hit Ezra low in his side. Even as he felt the impact tossing him back and to the ground, he let loose his own shot. He heard a cry as if from a great distance, and then everything swam into darkness.
Pain.... It was a slow, throbbing, soul wrenching pain. It beat along his side in time with his heart and he wondered idly what he had slept on, as it was greatly uncomfortable. He groaned and felt hesitant hands wipe at his face; it was this unexpected attention that caused him to struggle to open his eyes. His vision swam in and out of focus for several long seconds before he was able to see the pale, frightened face of Emmalou Potter.
"Oh please, Mr Standish..." she bitterly cried, tears streaming down her childish face, which was red and puffy; she had obviously been crying for a while. This distressed the gambler greatly as she continued, "Please, don't be dying on me...." Her tears slipped down her face and splashed on his cheeks. He blinked, then coughed, twisting into the sudden burst of pain that ripped through him. When he came to himself again, the young child was crying even harder and clutching at him, as if to let him go would be to lose him.
Her frantic actions were causing him more pain, but he knew that to throw the child off as he wanted would only distress her more, so taking a shallow breath against the agony, he gasped as calmly as he could, "My dear... child...." He had to wait while another flash of pain stole through him before he continued, forcing the words out, "Please don't.... distress yourself.... I can assure... you... that everything.... will be fine...." He blinked, knowing that he had to hang on to consciousness, as he had no idea what the young girl might do if he passed out. He could already see the utter terror in her eyes as she watched him closely, as if to blink would make him disappear.
"Please, Mr Standish..." she gasped, gently rubbing his face and pushing his dark locks from his eyes; it was obviously a comforting technique that her mother had used on her when she had been ill. "Please don't leave me...." Tears welled again as she cast a look across the clearing towards the still body of Sims. "The horses..." she hiccuped as she rushed on, "they ran away.... I tried to get them, but they both ran away." Fresh tears spilled over her cheeks and Ezra wanted nothing more than to take her in a hug and let her know that she was safe, that nothing was going to harm her while he was alive. He knew a moment's regret that he had not taken the time to ensure that his own horse was firmly tied down, but his concentration had been on the scene he could hear and not his own mount.
By now the chain of events leading up to his unfortunate position had returned and he knew exactly why he was laying on the ground with an incredible pain in his side. He slowly moved his head so that he could see in the direction that Emmalou kept looking and could see Sims' body across the clearing, his arms outstretched, fingers grasping, one knee up. He was not moving and his gun lay several feet away from him. It was obvious to the gambler that the man was dead. "Don't worry... my dear," Ezra began, then gritted his teeth as another wave of pain flashed over him. "Don't worry... he can't hurt... you any more," he panted.
"I think he's dead, Mr Standish.... He's not breathing and his eyes are open...." She began to cry again, the tears slipping down her little face like a torrent of rain.
"Please..." Ezra began; the sight of a woman, no matter how young, crying distressed him. "It will be all right," he stated again, this time in a firmer voice which got the attention of the child, who hiccuped before she forced herself to stop crying. The gambler could see that it was a costly effort and he had to admire her courage. "We just... have to... think," he finished, as he tried to push the pain far enough away so that he could do just that.
The girl snapped her mouth shut on the question she had been about to ask and waited with large eyes fixed firmly on the man she knew and trusted. Her mother had once told her that the seven men who protected the town were good men and that if she was ever in trouble and her mother or Mrs Travis was not available, then Emmalou was to find one of them and tell them what was wrong. Even the gambler, her mother had stated firmly, for he too had played an important part in bring her father's killer to justice and would help her.
Ezra, meanwhile, knew that he had to protect the young girl and, while he felt sure that Sims was dead and that risk was removed, he knew that they were still in danger from the freezing cold of the night and any wild animals that chanced on them. He was suddenly grateful that he had left clear sign of his path and knew that the others would follow as soon as they returned to town. Vin would have no trouble following the trail he had left.
He realised that to save Emmalou he had to stay alive, and to do that he had to stop the bleeding from his wound, which he could still feel leaking out and slipping warmly down his side to be soaked up by the dry, hungry earth. "My darling child..." he gasped, "can you... can you help me to sit up?" The little girl agilely moved forward and between them they managed to sit the gambler up. He spent a few moments leaning heavily against her while he waited for the edges of his world to settle, then Ezra managed to stagger to his feet. Leaning heavily on the small girl, they slowly made their way over to Sims.
The gambler fell to his knees and said to Emmalou in a harsh tone, "Honey... I need you to go... go... across the clearing.... I have to...." He leant forward as the pain flared through him again. "Go," he gasped, pushing weakly at the child. She looked frightened and uncertain, but slowly moved away. When Ezra was sure that she was far enough away not to actually see what he was doing, he reached out and began checking over the other man; even though he felt sure the man was dead, he still had to make sure. Edward Sims was indeed dead, his eyes staring up at the sky. The gambler would never have thought that his hastily fired shot could have killed the man, but the bullet had entered his neck and torn a bloody hole, ripping out most of his throat. He must have died instantly. Silently the gambler leant forward and closed the man's eyes; the kidnapper's burial would have to wait. The body would need to be taken back to town, and that he just could not manage.
With a great effort, Ezra struggled back up and made his way over to the young girl, who rushed forward to assist him again when his knees threatened to give out under him.
"We have to stop this bleeding, Mr Standish." Emmalou said, her tone suddenly sounding much older than her actual years.
"Yes," he agreed, accepting her help gratefully. They both shuffled over to the edge of the clearing, where his legs finally gave out and they slumped to the ground against a large tree. "Emmalou," he said, knowing that he was fighting a losing battle against staying conscious. "I'm going to... sleep now... but don't worry... it's just for a short... while...." He had intended to reassure the child further, but his strength was gone and the darkness that had been hovering on the edges of his consciousness finally crowded in on him.
When he next awoke it was to find that his jacket, waistcoat and shirt had been removed, and his shirt had been roughly tied about his middle and used as a bandage for his wound. His jacket had been laid back over him to keep him warm, while his waistcoat now rested under his head. He turned to look at the young girl, who smiled weakly and said mildly, seeming much calmer than she had before, "My mother helped look after a friend of my father once... he was shot whilst in the saloon and mama had to nurse him. I helped her," she commented proudly, before she stumbled to a stop. After a few quiet minutes she added, "I remember Mr Jackson saying that you had to stop the bleeding... and you..." she paused again before she hurried on, a quiver returning to her voice, "and you were bleeding an awful lot, Mr Standish." He could only wonder at the difficulty that Emmalou had had in undressing him and treating his wound, but he was grateful for her effort, as he knew that he could have easily bled to death if it had been left untreated.
"Emmalou," Ezra began, wanting to use his conscious time constructively. "Mr Larabee and the others will be here... soon... tomorrow, I hope... but we have to...." He stopped and waited for a few seconds until the pain passed. "We'll have... to camp... camp here... tonight."
"Camp...?" The note of panic was back in her tone, and Ezra cursed himself for awakening that in her as she hurried on, "What about the... the... animals... the wild animals? Mr Sims said that if I ran away the animals would come and get me if I... I...." The young girl stumbled to a stop and Ezra reached out a comforting hand and gently grasped her cold fingers.
He stated firmly, "I will be here, my dear... to... to protect you.... The creatures will not hurt you... you have my word as a gentleman on that." He saw how his words calmed the child and, with a large smile, he continued, "Now, we have... to get some wood... for a fire... that will keep the animals away.... And my gun... can you get my gun?" The young girl nodded, seemingly much more at ease now that Ezra was awake and in control again. She swiftly returned with Ezra's weapons, and also those of Mr Sims. Ezra was thankful, as he knew that his larger gun was better protection against animals than the small calibre derringer he wore.
Ezra then directed the young girl to gather up all the dry wood in the clearing that could be used for the fire. The gambler made sure that she did not leave his sight or go near the body of the dead bank clerk. He continued to talk to her, asking her questions, and she soon began to answer freely, telling how she had walked in on the robbery and how Mr Sims had carried her out of town on his horse. Ezra had to admire the resilience of youth that allowed her to face such dangers and bounce back so quickly.
As night began to fall, Ezra directed Emmalou in making the fire and, gritting his teeth against the pain, he leant over and carefully lit it. Once the blaze was going, he felt sure they stood a pretty good chance of surviving the night.
He could see that Emmalou was shivering from the cold, and her face was now etched with exhaustion. With care he held open his arms in invitation and winced as the young lady gratefully accepted his offer of warmth and crawled into his embrace. He settled her on his uninjured side and there they sat for the rest of the evening, sharing his jacket, Ezra filling the silence with stories of brave princesses, handsome knights and the magic of fairytales. Finally the child slipped sideways until her head was resting on the gambler's upper leg and faded into a deep, exhausted sleep. Ezra fought to stay awake, using the cold and pain in his side to keep him conscious. He had one arm wrapped about his middle and the other held his gun, which rested by his side. When necessary, he would carefully release the gun and put more wood on the fire, which was within easy reach.
Chris Larabee and the others rode into town. They had made excellent time in getting back, but it was not enough when they discovered what had transpired and that Ezra had gone after the kidnapper alone. Whatever Larabee's feelings might have been towards the gambler the day before, he now only felt a burning concern, yet it was too late for the others to follow, as night would soon be falling and it would be impossible to follow any trail.
The cowboys they had brought in willingly agreed to spend the time in jail needed to clear their names, and this along with Sims' attempt to rob the bank led Larabee to believe that they were innocent. But he still left JD, Buck and Josiah to watch over them and the town while Vin, Nathan and himself went after the missing gambler and the kidnapped child.
They were ready to ride at dawn, and left as soon as it was light enough for them to see their way, Tanner in the lead as they rode out of the town. Mrs Potter was there with Mary Travis to support her as they watched them leave.
They soon came on the clear trail that Ezra had left and, putting spur to horse, they rushed after their missing companion. For some reason Chris was unable to stop the churning worry that bit at his gut. He just knew that the gambler was in trouble, and it was his fault for the angry words that he had thrown at him. The gunslinger knew that the gambler had been returning to Four Corners determined to leave their group, as Larabee's threat had been quite clear and Chris now knew that it was down to him, and him alone, to persuade the other man to remain.
Ezra awoke with a start and looked about fearfully, not sure what had awoken him. Emmalou was still sleeping curled into his side, but the fire had gone out. The height of the sun informed the gambler that dawn had passed several hours ago. He had not intended to sleep, but his own exhaustion had finally overcome him in the early hours and he had passed out without even being aware.
He could tell from the throbbing of his wound and his desperate thirst that it had become infected over night and he had a fever, but he was not surprised. He knew that a large amount of clothing had gone into the wound along with the bullet. He had seen far too many injuries of a similar type to not fully appreciate his chances of surviving without immediate proper medical assistance.
He heard a sound coming from the bushes and, raising his gun, he waited until the unknown creature making the noise showed itself. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw that it was the horse that he had borrowed from the livery stable the day before.
Carefully he shifted and, groaning against the pain, he laid the sleeping child down beside him. It was a sign of her exhaustion that she did not awaken. With slow, careful movements he clambered to his feet and walked towards the animal. As he did so, he made reassuring sounds.
The horse's ears flicked back and forth, listening to the man's approach. The horse was used to humans and, after having spent the night on its own, it was now ready to return. Ezra moved forward and snatched up the reins, but the animal shied away in fear at the sudden movement and nearly pulled him off his feet. Emmalou's small hand reached over his and, between them, they managed to calm the horse down.
They made sure the horse was firmly tied to the tree before Ezra removed the canteen and insisted that the child drink. She grasped the large water container and drank deeply. Her thirst caused her to spill the water, but the gambler didn't have it in his heart to berate the child, she had been through enough already, so he just waited until she had drunk her fill and then allowed a few swallows to quench his own thirst. It was not enough, but he didn't know where their next water was coming from, so he was determined to be cautious.
"You... must get on... the horse," the gambler finally panted, knowing that their only real chance of surviving lay in heading back the way he had come, towards town, hoping to meet up with the others as they travelled after them. If not, he hoped to get Emmalou close enough to town so that she could continue the journey on her own, once he became unable to do so.
"No, Mr Standish," the young girl stated firmly, "you get on first. I'll help you... and then I can get up behind you, that way the horse can carry us both... just like our horse did Jimmy and me." Ezra knew that she was talking about her bother and the old horse that Mr Potter owned. He had seen them riding it around the livery yard a few days after he first arrived in the town. The gambler desperately wanted to argue, but he just didn't have the strength and he knew that they would make better time if they both rode. "We can use that rock over there to get on the horse," Emmalou continued, practically pointing to a raised rock; it was just the right height to allow Ezra to stand on it and then clamber onto the horse.
It took several tries, but in the end the gambler managed to get onto the horse and hold it in place while the young girl clambered on behind him. She wrapped her arms firmly around his middle, taking great care not to touch his injured side. He grasped her clenched hands in reassurance before he slowly urged the animal forward. He found that leaning over the saddle horn helped ease the tearing pain that erupted in his side with each step that the horse took. Emmalou also leant forward to hold on to him, as best she could.
Slowly they started to head back the way that they had come. Before long, Ezra slipped into a half conscious haze, keeping just enough attention on the trail to ensure that they continued on the correct path. The rest of his attention was spent fighting the encroaching darkness that threatened to send him spiralling to the ground.
Vin Tanner held up his hand to halt the two men behind him. He tilted his head to one side and then started forward again, moving swiftly towards the sound that had caught his attention. As he moved, he urged his animal into a canter.
Suddenly a horse crested the hill before them and a young voice cried out in joy at the sight of them. Larabee, knowing that it was Emmalou, broke into a fast trot, following Vin up the rise. He gasped in horror when he saw Ezra leaning over the neck of horse glance up, then tilt sideways, slipping to land hard on the ground. The young child let out another cry and scrambled off the horse to crouch down beside the fallen man. She was shaking his arm frantically, trying to awaken him, but Ezra was too deeply unconscious to take any notice of her
As Nathan reached Ezra, he leapt from his horse and joined the others who were now crouched beside him and, with shaking hands, he carefully lifted the gambler over onto his back and pulled down the torn shirt to reveal the bloody, swollen bullet wound. He then rested his hand across the other's forehead and winced at the heat that radiated from it. "It's a nasty wound, Chris," the healer explained, not seeing the annoyed look this earned him from the gunslinger, who could clearly see that it was, "and he's got a mighty strong fever."
"Please.... Please help him..." Emmalou wept as she looked beseechingly from one man to the other. "Please... he saved my life.... Mr Sims was going to kill me." She took a few shallow breaths before she burst into a wail of hysterical tears. Finally, the shock of recent events was catching up with her. Larabee, not knowing what else to do, knelt down in front of the child and pulled her into a firm, comforting embrace which she melted into, crying bitterly from the horror of her ordeal. Chris held her firmly, knowing from his own experience as a parent that a strong shoulder was the best thing he could offer the crying child at that moment.
"How is he, Nathan?" Vin asked after several long minutes of watching Nathan work frantically over the injured man. The healer was trying to stem the new flow of blood that poured from the freshly torn wound. The fall from the horse had not done Ezra Standish any favours.
"He's not going to be up to travelling for a few days..." Nathan stated as he pulled another piece of clean cloth from his bag and, folding it, pressed it firmly against the jagged wound in the other's side. "I need to get the bullet out and then give him something to fight this fever."
Chris gently moved back from the shuddering girl and asked firmly, needing to know if Sims was still a threat to them, "What happened to Mr Sims, Emmalou?"
"Mr Standish..." she gulped, looking down at her fallen saviour before she pulled her shoulders back straighter and answered, fighting to keep control of her voice which still threatened to waver, "he shot him. He's dead... back there." She pointed back over the small hill they had appeared over. "About an hour or two back... in a copse of trees."
"Vin," Chris said, suddenly all business. "Can you backtrack and find the body... we'll have to take it back to town with us."
Tanner nodded and, after giving Ezra one last long look, he leapt onto his horse and rode off. Larabee knew how hard it was for the tracker to leave his friend while he was injured, but he also knew that Vin understood why he needed to fetch the body back. It could not be left out here in the wild for the animals, and Ezra might have to prove his innocence at the killing. Even though the man had robbed the bank and kidnapped a child, there would still be an enquiry into his death. The judge was very firm on such matters.
"Chris, can you get a fire going? I'll have to remove this bullet and hot water will be needed," the healer said, still frantically working over the unconscious man, who was now groaning slightly at the pain the healer's actions caused.
With a slight nod, the gunslinger set about making up a camp that they could use until the gambler was fit enough to travel. He took Emmalou with him, and she seemed much calmer as she scurried off to fetch the odd piece of wood that Larabee directed her towards. He saw that keeping her busy settled her, so he took her with him when he went in search of the water that Nathan said he would need to fight the fever.
By nightfall, the bullet had been removed and the gambler was lying caught in the grip of a mounting fever. He tossed and turned as he fought against the villain who had kidnapped the child. In the middle of this, he threw in snatches of the argument that he had had with Larabee and with each snarled and mumbled word, Larabee felt his gut clench tighter and tighter, knowing that he had caused this pain to the gambler.
Vin returned with Sims' body tied over the bank clerk's own horse that Tanner had discovered grazing nearby. The money that the clerk had stolen was found safely in the saddlebags; it seemed a pitifully small amount when you realised that it had cost the man his life, and maybe that of Ezra Standish. Emmalou was finally sleeping soundly after being fed and given one of Nathan's concoctions to drink; she now rested wrapped in a warm blanket near the fire.
As the three men sat about the fire, they discussed their choice of action. It was decided that Vin would take Emmalou, the money and the body of Sims back to Four Corners the next day, while Chris and Nathan remained with Ezra, who would not be able to ride a horse for several days. Tanner would then return with a wagon in which to transport the injured gambler back to town. No one mentioned the fact that Ezra might not survive the night, and therefore eliminate the necessity of Vin's return to town without the others. That was a fear they each kept to themselves.
A groan from the sleeping gambler had Nathan scrabbling over to check on him. Seeing the injured man blinking up at him, he smiled warmly and offered with false joviality, "Nice to have you back with us, Ezra."
"Emmalou?" the gambler gasped, just barely audibly, licking at dry lips and trying to look around. A reassuring hand on his shoulder had him blinking back up at the healer, who offered water that he gracefully accepted.
"She's safe, Ezra. Sleeping, look...." Nathan pointed over towards the bundle lying near the fire, before he continued in genuine praise, "You did a good job, Ezra."
"Sims... he was...." The injured man gasped as raw pain washed over him, but he struggled on, "He's dead... I had to...."
"Ezra...." This time it was Larabee whose warm tone washed over him, but the gambler flinched as if expecting a blow. The gunslinger, witnessing this, pushed his own feelings of guilt aside and continued, "Ezra, I know this ain't the time or the place... but I want you to know... that... that I was wrong with what I said. Ezra... your coming back early saved that little girl... and that's what's important at the moment." He shot a look at Nathan and could see that the healer was not happy with him, as he did not want his patient upset, so Larabee hurried on, "You need to rest now... and we can talk about this when you're better, but Ezra... you're not leaving us... not 'cause of this bullet wound, nor 'cause of my words.... I won't let you leave... do you hear me, Ez? I won't let you."
"Chris," Nathan warned, not liking the idea of Ezra getting upset over Larabee's words, and with a gentle hand he moved the gunslinger aside so that he could get back into the injured man's line of vision as he said, "You're going to be fine, Ezra. You've just got to rest, fight the fever... concentrate on that... don't worry about anything else." He tossed Larabee an annoyed look with those words, then sighed when he turned back towards Standish and saw that the man was unconscious again. Had he even heard his words? He had no way of knowing.
"Will he be all right?" Larabee demanded.
Unfortunately Nathan could only shrug his shoulders and say, "It's really up to him now, Chris." The healer paused for a few moments, choosing his words with care before he continued, "Chris, I want you to leave Ezra alone... while he's healing. I don't want you to mention about his leaving or anything; this wound is going to be tough enough to fight against, without you making it harder."
It was not what the gunslinger wanted to hear but he nodded, seeing the wisdom of the other's words as he slowly made his way over to his bedroll by the child and sat on it, not taking his eyes off the mumbling figure of the injured man.
It was early light as Chris Larabee watched Vin Tanner ride quietly out of camp. Emmalou was in front of him in his saddle and he was leading Sims' horse, which now held his body slung over the saddle.
Ezra had spent the night drifting in and out of fever, at times calling out to the dead Sims to drop his weapon and not hurt the child, then on other occasions he was arguing with the other members of the seven, and on one occasion he was actually fighting with his mother, arguing with her about his decision to remain with the other six men in Four Corners. It sounded like a rough and bitter argument, and it only made the watching gunslinger feel even worse about his harsh words.
Larabee had to accept that he was also the cause of Standish's anguish when the gambler started to plead his case for staying with the others in the town of Four Corners. It sounded as if Larabee was fighting with the gambler, dragging him out of the saloon and tossing him towards his horse, not allowing him to stay unless it was on his harsh terms... and Larabee's terms seemed to be too restricting to the gambler.
The more Standish pleaded his right to remain in the town, the guiltier Larabee felt. His harsh words were now coming back to haunt him in a manner he had never expected: the fevered ramblings of a dying man.
The day passed slowly as Nathan stood guard over the sick man. As the sun rose higher in the sky and the heat grew, he washed down the fevered man, determined to keep him as cool as possible. They had set up a covered shelter for him using a blanket, and Larabee rode out about midday, returning to the river he had found the day before. He was back an hour later with their canteens refilled and some rabbits that he had managed to kill. He set about skinning the animals and making a rough broth, as the healer had said that Ezra would need the broth to give him the strength to fight the fever.
Nathan had stayed by Ezra's side the entire day, fighting the fever and struggling to get him to drink many of the concoctions that he had made to help the injured man. The broth was welcome, and by nightfall the gambler seemed to be resting easier, although his body still fought the fever.
As the night began to draw in, Chris started to gather together the wood needed to keep a warm fire burning during the cold night hours.
"Nathan...?" Ezra's voice was harsh from fevered ramblings and sounded incredibly weak.
"Ezra!" Nathan broke into a smile as he spoke. He was glad to see that the other man was awake, although his green eyes still held the haunting shadow of fever.
"Emmalou?" the other man gasped as he tried to lean up, but Nathan's firm hand on his shoulder prevented him. Ezra relaxed back: he knew that if they had found them, then Emmalou must be safe.
"She's safe. Vin left this morning to take her back to her mother. They should be home by now, and she has you to thank for that, Ezra. She struck me as being a very sensible young lady," Nathan continued with a smile, as he remembered the child informing him quite clinically what she had done to treat Ezra's injury after the gambler had been shot. "She made me promise that she could visit you as soon as you're well enough and we can get you back to town."
"Ain't going back..." the Southerner slurred, the words he used not of his usual high standard.
"Now, Ez, we'll talk about that later. You just..." the healer began, not wanting to upset the gambler while the man was so sick.
"No!" the injured man stubbornly countered, attempting to push up and toss off the comforting hand, but his wound prevented him from following through this action and he fell back with a gasp.
Larabee suddenly appeared and added his weight to the healer's, saying firmly, "Ezra." The gambler blinked up at the gunslinger, his eyes growing wide when he saw who was addressing him. "You settle down now, you hear? You're not leaving town, so you can just forget it." Seeing the spark of anger his words caused, he frantically insisted, "Remember you said you wouldn't run out on me... not again... remember? And I won't let you, you hear?"
"You told me..." Ezra began, becoming more agitated with each passing second.
The gunslinger forced his words aside and, totally ignoring Nathan's attempts to get him to stop, he continued, saying harshly, "I WAS WRONG, EZRA. Do you hear me, Ez? I was wrong. What I said... it wasn't right. We'll talk about it, I promise you... we'll talk... but not now. Now you need concentrate on getting better."
"What?" Ezra asked, totally confused to be confronted by this man who leant over him. He had never seen Chris look at him with such a warm light before; it was as if he was concerned for him.
Larabee felt his shoulders slump and he battled for the right words, but knew that he wasn't really up to the task. Fancy words were not his field of play; give him a straightforward gunfight any day of the week. Reaching out, he rested his hand carefully over the forehead of the downed man and said, "I know this is confusing, Ezra... we'll talk about it later. Please, just rest now... and drink whatever Nathan gives you."
The gambler screwed up his face and offered dryly, "The cure might be worse than the injury."
"Just damn well do it," snapped Larabee, some of the old defiance coming back, but the smile on his face took away the bite from his words.
Ezra, feeling like he was still in the middle of a fever dream, just nodded his head in surprise and then Nathan was moving in, supporting the gambler's shoulders, holding Ezra while he slowly sipped at the medicine that Nathan had mixed up. Shortly afterwards, the gambler lost his fight to keep his eyes open and slipped into a peaceful healing sleep.
"Did you mean it?" Nathan finally demanded of the gunslinger, as he settled back to watch his patient.
"Mean what?" Larabee questioned, still fighting his own concerns for the gambler.
"About you being sorry," snapped the healer, still upset that Chris had pushed the issue when he had asked him not to.
Larabee looked at Jackson for several long minutes before he nodded and offered honestly, "Yeah.... Yeah, I did."
Silence fell between the two men, but it was a quiet, comfortable silence that lasted well into the night as both men watched over the injured gambler.
Early the next day Vin arrived back with Josiah, who drove the wagon that they had brought from town.
With great care the gambler, who was still caught in the fight against his fever and drifting in and out of consciousness, was loaded into the back of the wagon that had been filled with pillows and blankets by the grateful women of the town. It was their way of expressing their gratitude for the devotion the gambler had shown in protecting the young child from Sims' murderous attack.
Vin knelt down beside the gambler and rested his hand on his shoulder, concerned that he still looked so ill. Nathan shook his head at the tracker's worried look; while the gambler appeared to be resting easier, he was still prone to bouts of high fever and, until they totally abated, it was hard to say if he would survive the injury.
Soon they were slowly making their way back to the small town of Four Corners and the uncertain future that lay ahead of them.
Ezra Standish might still leave the small town - unfortunately it might not be on the back of a horse, but within the confines of a wooden box. This was the one thought that tormented Chris Larabee as he followed behind the slow-moving wagon.
Their arrival back in Four Corners caused quite a stir, as people came out onto the streets to watch the slow wagon go by. Mrs Potter came out of her store with Emmalou by her side. They both rushed up to the wagon and the older woman asked, "Mr Jackson... how is he?" They could all tell that she was really moved when she saw the man lying unconscious in the middle of the blankets and pillows.
"He's a fighter, ma'am," Nathan said, with an air of confidence that he did not feel.
Mrs Potter swallowed and, pulling her daughter safely against her ample form, she offered in a trembling tone, "If there is anything, ANYTHING that I can do, or if he wants for anything, please let me know.... Please take anything you want from my store. That man...." She stopped as tears welled, but she forced herself to finish, "That man saved my daughter, and my life... I owe him so much."
Mary had approached and, with tender care, she slipped her arm supportively about Mrs Potter's shoulders and stated, "I'll second that, Nathan, and so will most of the women in this town. You will let us know if you need any assistance?"
Nathan was taken aback by the warmth and the offer of support and, smiling, he said, "I'll keep that in mind... and be assured Ezra will be getting the best treatment that I can give him."
"I know he will. Let them get Ezra inside now," Mary smiled, and with a gentle hand she supported Mrs Potter away from the wagon and allowed it to pass on its way to Nathan's rooms.
Josiah, Buck and JD moved up and followed the wagon down the street and, when the small procession finally stopped, Nathan made sure that Ezra was well wrapped up and, with the help of Josiah, they managed to get him safely up the stairs and inside.
Once he was settled, Nathan set about checking, cleaning and re-bandaging the wound. He then patiently sat by Ezra and held him while encouraging the half-conscious man to sip at the herbal tea that he had made up. Once finished, the gambler slipped back into a healing sleep. Nathan checked his fever and pulled the blankets up high around Ezra before he left him to rest.
"How is he?" Chris asked, standing by the door. The other four were located about the room, each trying to stay out of the healer's way while he worked.
"He still has a fever, but it's slowly coming down. He's lost a lot of blood, and that's what's really worrying me...."
"Why?" Chris demanded, standing up straighter, a hard frown marring his handsome face.
"Chris...." Nathan hesitated to raise the matter in front of the others, but seeing that the gunslinger was determined to get an answer he shrugged and answered honestly, "As soon as he's conscious, he's going to attempt to leave. He won't be strong enough, but hell you know that won't stop him. It's going to be weeks before he'll be really fit enough to leave... and Chris, you know he'll want to leave as soon as he's awake."
"I'll talk to him, Nathan," Chris insisted, not liking the way the conversation was going. As far as he was concerned, he would explain to Ezra that he had just lost his temper and that would be that. The gambler would do as he was told. Larabee knew that Standish had a very healthy respect for his ability with his guns.
"What if that don't work this time, Chris?" Buck asked, and there was a tone in his voice that informed the others that in the past he, too, had been the subject of Larabee's burst of tempers. "It's not always easy to forgive that tongue of yours... hell, I love you like a brother, you know that, but at times you sure make it hard."
"What the hell is this?" Larabee suddenly demanded, glaring at each of the men in turn. "You don't like the way I run things... fine, just say the word - any one of you can take over." He rushed on to state, "You think this is fun?" He pointed towards the town outside the small window and the man lying injured on the bed. "Fun... hell, I don't need this crap and I certainly don't need you riding my tail. I've said I'll sort it out between me and Ezra, and I will." Turning, he glared at Nathan and snarled, "Call me when he wakes up." With that, he spun about and slammed out of the door.
Silence ruled for several long seconds before Vin spoke to the room at large. "I guess that didn't go the way you planned?" The other men looked at the tracker in shock, as it was such an un-Vin-like thing to say. Seeing the look, Vin shrugged and said, "I think I'll go find Chris." With that, he nodded towards the others and left.
Josiah tilted his head back and sighed heavily before he commented, "I think it would be wise to release those gentlemen from jail now, as I think it's obvious that they were set up by Mr Sims, to divert our attention while he robbed the bank."
"Yeah," Buck agreed. "I'll come with you. JD?" the tall man asked. The young sheriff shot a glance towards the bed and, nodding, he followed his friends out.
"Well, Ezra," the healer said, sitting down beside his patient, "looks like it's just you and me." He wrung out a cloth and gently wiped it across the fevered brow. He knew that the peace would not last.
Vin found Chris where he expected him to be, in the darkest corner of the saloon, a full bottle in front of him. Without a word the gunslinger filled the second glass and pushed it across the table, towards the tracker. "Nathan didn't mean it that way, Chris," Vin said.
The other man swallowed and, looking at his friend, he smiled weakly and agreed, "I know... but he's right. As soon as Ezra can stand... hell, as soon as he can open his eyes, he's going to be attempting to leave. And there isn't really a damn thing I can do about it."
The tracker considered the words before he said, "You could always ask him to stay."
Chris looked at his friend before he snorted and, reaching for his drink, he tossed it back before replying, "I've tried that, Vin." Remembering his attempts on the trail.
Tanner smiled and answered warmly, "No... no, Chris, if I know you... you've informed, demanded and even ordered... but you've never just asked him." He saw the flash of anger that rose in Chris's eyes, but he was perhaps the only man in the country that did not fear the Larabee temper. "Ezra... he's about as easy to read as you are, and just as difficult to understand... but me... I used to make a living out of reading people."
"Yeah?" Chris asked, his good humour slowly returning as he realised that Vin was only trying to help. "And what does your reading of me and Ezra tell you?"
"That you're not that different from each other, and maybe the best way to reach Ezra is to be honest with yourself."
"Now you're giving me a headache," Larabee said, pouring himself another drink.
Vin sighed and stated, "It ain't that hard, Larabee... just look in the mirror. Ezra wants to leave about as much as you do." With that he stood and, with a nod, he moved away.
Larabee sat watching him leave, the taste of the whiskey suddenly going sour. He knew what Vin was trying to tell him, and the tracker was right - it wasn't that hard. It was just so difficult to admit that he needed them... the six other men. That they had grown to become something that he had never wanted again, that he had sworn would never touch his heart again. He didn't want to feel this anxiety, this concern and this fear because Ezra Standish was lying wounded in Nathan's clinic. He had promised himself that no one would ever get that close again.
He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, wondering how he had been able to lie to himself so completely. He had been so convinced that he could control his emotions that he had never given a thought to the fact that his emotions controlled him.
Standing, he made his way back to his room. He spent the rest of the afternoon looking at himself in the small mirror that he used for shaving. As dusk began to fall he began to realise what he had to do, and he made his way to Ezra's side.
The gambler was still sleeping, but his colour looked better. Nathan, seeing Chris, smiled and said quietly, "The fever's definitely down and he's resting a lot easier."
The gunslinger looked at the man who stood before him and he could see that he was on the verge of exhaustion. Reaching out and resting his hand on Jackson's stooped shoulder, he offered, "Why don't you go to my room and get some sleep, Nathan? I'll watch Ezra. If he gets restless, I'll send one of the others for you."
The healer was about to protest, but something in Larabee's demeanour stopped him. Sighing, he slowly nodded, saying, "If he wakes, try to get him to drink this." He held up the dreaded saucepan, which Chris could smell had one of his healing concoctions within. "He won't want to, but it will help the pain... and fight his blood loss."
"I'll make sure he drinks it, Nathan," Chris advised.
"Right," the healer said, hesitating again, not sure if he was doing the right thing. Then, realising that Larabee desperately needed to do this, he shook his head and, departing, he shot back, "If you need me, make sure you call me... and don't you go getting him all riled up, you hear?"
"I'll get you if he needs you, and I won't get him all riled up," Larabee promised. The door closed and he was alone with Standish. He stood at the end of the bed for several long minutes, just watching the other man breath, then he moved to sit in the chair that Nathan had recently vacated.
Slowly the hours passed. One by one the other members of the seven dropped in to enquire about Ezra's progress. If they were surprised to see Larabee keeping watch over gambler, they refrained from saying so. They waited a few minutes, talking to the gunslinger, then departed, knowing that the injured man was in safe hands.
In the early hours of the night, Ezra began to regain consciousness. He groaned for several long minutes before he opened his eyes, blinking as he tried to get his world into focus.
"How you feeling?" Chris asked, leaning over his friend and waiting until he was fully awake.
"What happened?" the confused gambler asked, glancing blearily around the room.
"Mr Sims robbed the bank and kidnapped Emmalou Potter."
"Emmalou!" Ezra started, attempting to rise up, but the pain and Chris's retraining hand prevented him.
"She's safe, Ezra... back with her mother. You did a good job."
The gambler slumped back on the bed and sighed; it was a sad, forlorn sound, as the memory of the last couple of days returned.
Larabee moved over and poured some of the herbal drink into a clean cup, then moving over he held it out to Ezra, who looked at it as if he was being asked to drink poison. "Nathan said it would help with the pain and your blood loss."
The gambler swallowed, his face twisting at the thought of drinking the concoction that Nathan had brewed. Larabee looked down at the cup and sniffed, pulling a face as he said, "I get the feeling this is going to taste as bad as it smells."
Ezra was unable to hide the smile that slipped across his lips at the other's words, then he winced and Chris, seeing this, moved forward and rested the cup on the small table next to the bed, saying, "Here, let me help." He carefully manoeuvred himself so that he was able to help Ezra sit up, supporting him. Then, picking up the cup, he held it out. The gambler took it with shaking hands and would have spilled it, if Chris had not added his own steadying hand.
Once he had finished the drink, Ezra leaned back, saying quietly, "Thank you." Chris rested him back and made sure he was covered and warm.
The gambler watched him move about the room, a frown marring his handsome face. He could clearly remember their last discussion and his statement about leaving the town, and Larabee was the last person he had expected to find nursing him.
"Why are you here watching over me?" Standish finally had to ask.
"Ezra, I don't know how much you remember about when we first found you, after you rescued Emmalou, but I tried to apologise for my words...."
"Mr Larabee," Standish interrupted, not wanting the gunslinger to go on. "I think that we have gone beyond apologies here. You made your ultimatum very clear... and I felt that I made my answer to your words just as clear." He slumped back; the talking was draining his strength.
"No Ezra, you don't understand...."
"It is very hard not to understand the words 'get out, get out now' and 'don't be there when we get back', Mr Larabee."
The gunslinger dropped his head in shame; he deserved to have his words tossed back at him. "I was wrong," he confessed honestly. "I don't have the right to tell you what to do. You stay here because you want to... it's your choice to protect this town." Larabee sat back and closed his eyes, his face creasing with anguish as he continued, "I can't MAKE you leave, Ezra, no more than I can MAKE you stay." He looked up and met the gambler's look head on, his own eyes clear as he finished firmly, "But I don't want you to leave, Ezra."
The gambler shivered, the tremble ripping through his body and causing him to grimace in pain. The gunslinger, seeing this, moved up and made sure that the blankets were wrapped firmly about his friend. As he did so, he said, "I can't promise never to lose my temper with you... nor that Nathan won't get on your case, or that Josiah will ever stop calling you son, but I can promise you that we will always be there. Vin told me this afternoon that if I wanted to find the right words to say to you. to express just how sorry I am for what happened, then I needed to look in the mirror, and that's what I did. This afternoon I spent hours looking in my small shaving mirror, and do you know what I saw Ezra?"
The gambler was spellbound; he didn't think that Chris Larabee had ever spoken to anyone the way he was speaking to him now. Seeing that the gunslinger was waiting for a reply, he slowly shook his head; he had no idea what Chris was going to say, only the knowledge that he wanted to hear it.
"I saw me... just me... no one else. Just me. Alone... and after about an hour I realised that I didn't want to see that any more. When I lost Sarah and Adam I thought that I wanted nothing more than to be left alone, but I realised today that I don't want that any more, Ezra, and I don't think you do, either. So I'm not going to demand that you stay, I won't try to stop you if you do decide to leave, but I will say that I DON'T want you to leave. Something very special has happened here, between the seven of us... it's almost like we've become family; we care about what happens to each other and this town.... You never gave a second thought to go after Sims and Emmalou... you never gave a second thought about risking your life for her. No matter what anyone else might say, we know that you're a good person, Ezra, and I know that I've been very lucky to have known you."
Suddenly the door opened and Nathan rushed in, his words shattering the moment as effectively as a gunshot. "Sorry, Chris, I didn't mean to sleep for so long." He stopped, realising that he had interrupted something. "Sorry," he said again, this time weakly.
Larabee stood up and, looking down at the silent man in the bed, he smiled warmly and said, "That's all right, Nathan, I think I'm about finished here, anyway." He moved towards the door and paused, one hand resting on the frame, his knuckles white with the tension he was holding in. The words had not been easy and he didn't look back as he said, "Think about what I've said, Ezra... I'll stand by whatever you decide." Then he was gone.
Nathan quietly checked over the man in the bed, pleased to note that the fever had now passed and the wound looked clean, with a healthy hue about the hole. He offered the gambler some more of the medicine but Ezra shook his head, saying, "No, Mr Larabee already gave me some." He then fell quiet, lost in thought.
"Mrs Potter and Emmalou will want to see you in the morning; that child has done nothing but tell everyone how brave you were," Nathan said, trying to fill the silence that settled over the room.
"She was a very brave young lady herself, and I will certainly look forward to seeing her again."
Finally Nathan could stand it no longer and, moving over, he sat down in the chair next to the bed and asked, "Did Chris apologise? You know he feels pretty bad about what happened," the healer went on.
Ezra held up his hand, stopping the other man from continuing as he said, "I feel that Mr Larabee and I have come to an amicable agreement." Seeing the raised eyebrow this earned him, he continued, "I know that I can leave at any time I want, but at the present time I choose not to."
"Did Chris threaten you?" Nathan demanded, angry at the thought that the gunslinger had used the time watching Ezra to bully the other man into staying. While Nathan didn't want Ezra to leave, neither did he want the gambler to feel intimidated into staying.
The gambler looked shocked and he stated firmly, "Mr Larabee asked me to stay, that is all... and I...." He stopped, as if the importance of his words suddenly hit him as he continued slowly, "And I don't want to leave." He looked stunned and turned a confused glance towards Nathan.
The healer smiled and, gently patting the other's shoulder, he said warmly, "Welcome home, Ezra... welcome home."
The gambler slipped from his chair in the saloon and, standing slowly, he cautiously moved towards the door. It had been two weeks since he had saved Emmalou Potter and been shot in the process. Two weeks since Chris Larabee had asked him not to leave the town of Four Corners.
He still was not sure how he felt about the early morning conversation that had taken place with the gunslinger, yet he had been warmed by the genuine concern the six men had shown during the following days. They had visited him and kept him company while he had been confined to Nathan's tender care. Rarely had he been left to his own devices, and for that he was grateful; he found himself unashamedly wallowing in the warmth that he felt coming from the others. He honestly felt as if some rite of passage had been passed, and for the first time in his life he felt truly at home in one place and with the six men he worked with.
Yet, Ezra had to admit that he still had a major problem. It was not with the other men, but instead with the women of Four Corners, who had taken his simple deed of doing the job the judge paid him for as an act of outstanding courage. To show their appreciation of his rescuing Miss Emmalou Potter, they had taken to cooking for him, to washing and darning his clothes, he had even had to shoo a couple of them from cleaning his room. While he would normally have been grateful for these acts - and, indeed, the first few days of his recovery he had greatly enjoyed the home cooking - he was now in serious fear of outgrowing his clothes, and of never knowing when one of the well-meaning women was going to pop up in his life, carrying a plate of freshly made pie, or a new shirt that she had just had to make for him.
Cautiously he peered out of the doors of the saloon. He needed to go to the jail to cover his shift. Nathan had allowed him to return to light duties that morning, and this was his first task.
"Going somewhere Ezra?" a voice said loudly behind him.
Ezra let out a yelp and spun about, grabbing at his side as pain flared. While he was feeling a lot better, his side would still make itself known if he moved quickly. He saw Vin standing behind him, his bright smile faltering when he saw the gambler reach for his side.
"I'm sorry, Ez... didn't mean to startle you."
"No harm done," the man in question replied with his own forced smile. "I'm just trying to estimate my chances of getting to the jail without having one of the womenfolk of the town descending on me with baskets of food, or some other item of their esteem."
"You sure are getting a lot of attention from the womenfolk..." the tracker smiled broadly. All six of the other men had been helping the gambler eat the offerings of the ladies, but even they had been slowing down as the flow continued.
"Yes, and while it is most flattering, it is also most fattening," the gambler commented, returning his attention to the street outside. It looked quiet enough, but Ezra knew that the moment he stepped outside he would be a moving target for the women of Four Corners.
"Heard they were going to ask you to judge the next Cherry Pie contest at the church meeting this Sunday," Vin stated conversationally, with a slight edge of wickedness to his voice.
"Oh good lord," the gambler gasped; he knew how nasty those events could get. The women had cornered Larabee a few months ago, and only his deadly glare and fingers playing with his guns had prevented a full-scale bloodbath.
Larabee had wandered up behind the two men and, smiling, he stated warmly, "Don't worry, Ezra, we'll watch your back."
Glancing down at his growing midriff, he retorted sourly, "It's not my back that worries me." Then, with the bravery that hallmarked the seven men who protected the town, he took a deep breath and, swinging open the doors, he scurried out to meet his fate, his focus totally set on the door to the jail across the street. He wisely chose to ignore the ripple of laughter that followed him, but allowed the warm feeling it caused to suffuse his soul. It was nice to finally be home.
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