Pain was the first sensation he felt; a throbbing agony that wanted to rip the very breath from his body. It was almost too much effort to breathe in any case, as each gasp sent a shuddering through his frame that practically had him whimpering in agony.
He had no idea how long he lay there, struggling not to breathe too deeply, to keep his teeth clenched against the pain that wanted to burst from his lips, but finally other senses began to nip at his attention and he slowly realised that he could hear two voices, speaking in harsh tones.
"Damn it Chris, we need to get him back to town now, not go after Jenkins…"
"If we leave now we'll never find his trail again, and you know it Vin."
"I don't give a rat's ass about that… Ezra's been shot! He needs Nathan to get that bullet out..." the tracker began, only to be roughly interrupted by a voice Ezra now recognised as Chris Larabee's.
"Jenkins is a vicious killer - he murdered that family in cold blood. Damn it, Vin, you saw what he did - how he… he…." Larabee's voice faltered as he remembered the burned remains he had found. Roughly pushing his emotions aside, he ploughed on, "If we don't go after him now we may never find him, and he'll kill again… you know he will."
"Don't you think I know that? But Ezra's hurt, Chris, and he needs to be our first concern."
Silence reigned for several minutes, and Ezra realised that this was not the first time they had been over this argument. He took a deeper breath and felt pain flare out from his injured shoulder, unable to suppress the groan that tumbled from his lips. The sound drew the other men's attention to him.
"Ezra... Ez, you back with us?" Vin asked, moving to kneel beside his fallen friend.
Although it was painful, Ezra managed to gasp out, "Hurts…."
"I know Ez, just take it easy… you got shot in the shoulder. The bullet's still in there, but we're gonna get you back to Nathan just as soon as the sun's up.…" Ezra heard a snort of breath and knew that Chris was still not in agreement. Vin also heard the noise but he merely paused before stating firmly, "As soon as the sun's up, Ez."
"What happened?" Ezra demanded weakly, blinking his eyes to bring the wavering world back into focus.
Larabee spoke as he moved into Ezra's line of vision. "Jenkins escaped." He paused briefly before he continued, "We were bushwhacked by three other riders…."
"Jenkins escaped!" Ezra caught the most important fact - that the multi-murderer was free again. Before he could say more he felt his dry throat close up and he coughed, causing agony to flash through his body, nearly driving him over the edge into unconsciousness again. The world blurred and darkened for several long moments as he fought to contain the pain. Finally, he came back to himself to find Vin holding a canteen to his lips. He eagerly drank the warm water as it wet his parched throat.
As he drank he could hear Vin's quiet voice: "Just take it easy, Ez. Just rest… don't worry about a thing."
Finally his head was rested back on the makeshift pillow and all thought fled as unconsciousness snatched him away.
His second awakening was easier than his first, as the pain was now a dull throb that seemed to be in synch with his heartbeat. He felt warm, settled and comfortable, yet he could hear movement about the camp and knew that they would soon be on their way.
This thought gave him pause as he remembered the conversation of the night before. Jenkins had escaped, and what Chris had said was very true: The man was a ruthless killer; a mad dog that needed to be put down, and if they didn't go after him now, while the trail was still warm, they might lose him for good and he would be free to kill again. It was only by sheer luck that they had managed to capture him in the first place. Ezra knew that Jenkins would kill again, and soon, unless they stopped him.
He felt someone kneel down beside him and knew instinctively that it was Vin. Sure enough, the tracker's voice soothed over him as the other man gently asked, "Hey Ezra, you awake?"
Ezra realised that Vin knew he was awake, so he opened his eyes and smiled weakly up at the concerned look that filled the other man's face, saying in a voice that surprised him with its frailty, "Vin."
"You need to eat something before we get you ready," the tracker said as he made to stand.
Ezra's urgent tone stopped him from moving as the gambler insisted, "We have to go after Jenkins." The look on Tanner's face informed Standish just what the other man thought of that idea, but the gambler rushed on, "We have to…. He will kill again."
"Ez, you're not in any condition to go after Jenkins and I'm not leavin' you here alone, so forget it. You need Nathan… the bullet's still in there."
Ezra moved in agitation then winced as pain flared again, but he was determined to have his say. "Vin, we have to go after him."
"You won't even be able to stay on your horse," the tracker argued, not willing to see Ezra suffer any more than he already had. He knew it was going to be a hard journey back to Four Corners, even though it was only a half-day's ride away.
"If I can stay on my horse, we go after Jenkins," Ezra stated firmly. He was a gambler and he knew what the odds were, but he was determined.
"This is no time to gamble, Ezra… not with your life," Vin said.
Ezra pushed his concern aside by stating firmly, "Vin… Jenkins needs to be caught, and quickly... before he strikes again."
"Damn it, Ezra...."
"My decision," Ezra repeated firmly, knowing that Tanner would have to accept his choice.
Standing up Vin snarled, "To hell with it. You want to kill yourself, fine, but don't expect me to stand by and watch you do it."
Before he could storm off, Ezra's voice caught at him and held him in place as the gambler pleaded, "Vin… please… this is important."
"I'm sorry, Ez, nothing's that important." With that, the tracker spun round and moved away, his face set.
Ezra lay there for long seconds, fighting the urge to yell out his frustrations, when Chris suddenly appeared by his side. "Vin said that you want to go after Jenkins." It was a statement of fact, not a question, but Ezra answered anyway.
"Yes. If we don't leave now we may never catch up with him," Ezra explained, looking up at the gunslinger who seemed to tower above him.
"He's got to be at least a good half-day ahead of us," Larabee said, crouching down beside the gambler.
"But he won't expect us to follow him…" Ezra tried to argue. He had not expected to have to argue the matter with Chris, and it was tiring him out.
"He might," Chris interrupted, his face serious.
"So that's it… we just let him escape and kill the next family, and the one after that."
Larabee sighed and looked down at the ground. Ezra realised that he had never seen Chris look as old as he did at that moment and he felt sorry that he had spoken the words, but they were out now and lying between them.
"Ez, we'd never be able to catch up with him. We'd need to ride hard and fast, and you're… you're just not up to that…."
Ezra slumped back in defeat before an idea slipped into his agile brain and with a gasp he said, "The caves… Vin was talking about them yesterday. Let me rest up at the caves, give me water, food, whatever, and you and Vin go after Jenkins…"
"Ez…" Chris started to say, not liking the idea. Seeing the determination in the gambler's eyes though, he paused before he finally admitted, "I want to go after Jenkins, but Vin's right - it's not worth your life."
"To hell with that, it's my decision…" Ezra spat back, surprised at the sudden anger he felt towards the gunslinger.
Chris took a deep, steadying breath before he answered, "I'll talk to Vin." Then he stood and moved off, leaving Ezra laying there, almost shaking with anger. The decision was not Chris's or Vin's to make, and he was damned if he was going to let them make it for him.
He slowly pushed himself up and gasped as his shoulder flared in protest at his movements, but he was determined and pushed the pain aside as he staggered to his feet, the blankets falling to the ground as he stood.
"What the hell…" Larabee began, moving swiftly back towards him.
Ezra managed to push his helping hands aside as he hissed, "It's my decision, damn you. Not yours… not Vin's… MINE."
Vin suddenly appeared on his other side and moved to support him when he would have fallen. "Ezra, take it easy."
"Ezra wants to wait at the caves while we go after Jenkins," Chris snarled, his temper barely held in check.
Vin looked shocked and spluttered, "Ez…."
The gambler never gave him a chance to finish as he insisted, his energy starting to desert him, "Just for a day or so… to give you the chance to catch up with Jenkins. I'll be fine…."
Larabee suddenly came to a decision and said firmly, "Ezra, you're right; it is your decision. If you really want to do this then I'll take you to the caves."
Ezra slowly nodded his head, never taking his eyes from Larabee. "Yes, I want to do this."
"But…" Vin began, but Chris held up his hands, forestalling any further discussion.
"Ezra's made his decision; we take him to the caves and then go after Jenkins."
"This is what you wanted, isn't it?" Vin snarled, his face twisting with his own anger.
"No, Vin," Ezra stated, leaning heavily into Vin's offered support to gain his full attention. "I want to do this… Jenkins has to be stopped."
"Ez, you need to get that bullet out... as soon as possible, not in few days' time...."
"Vin, please," the gambler pleaded. "I will survive, but the next family Jenkins comes across won't."
Silence ruled over the three until Vin finally conceded, "If we're goin' to do this, let's do it."
"Thank you Vin," Ezra said, a weak smile lighting his face, but Tanner's next words wiped it away.
"Don't thank me for helpin' to kill you, Ez," Vin said gravely.
Larabee turned away and, while Vin checked Ezra's wound, began to make a light breakfast which they ate in silence. He then cleared the camp and readied the horses while Vin again checked and re-bandaged Ezra's wound. By the time Vin finished, Ezra was sweating and pale but he kept his groans tightly behind his lips.
Finally Vin helped him up into his saddle, where he sat swaying until Vin climbed up behind him and, reaching for the reins, slowly urged the horse forward.
Chris hurried to mount his own horse, and slowly the small group headed out towards the caves.
The trip to the caves was agony for Ezra, but he never said a word or allowed a groan to issue from his lips. He was determined that Larabee and Tanner should get after Jenkins as soon as possible but knew that if he expressed the slightest discomfort, Tanner would be unwilling to leave him and would start insisting they return to Four Corners instead of going after the killer.
As they neared the pathway that led to the caves, Ezra felt Vin straighten behind him and knew that something was wrong. Ezra had a healthy respect for Tanner's instincts and if the man sensed something, then there was something wrong.
"What?" he asked, his voice sounding weaker than he liked.
"We need to stop," Vin said, reining in the horse, his action catching Chris's attention and he too pulled his horse to a halt.
"What's wrong?" Larabee asked, moving his horse back to stand beside Tanner and Standish.
"This is the only way to the caves and we're following someone else up," Vin said, pointing ahead of them. "Looks like they arrived late yesterday."
"Late yesterday?" Chris asked.
"Within the last twelve, fourteen hours."
"What's the problem, Vin?" Larabee asked. He could tell that the tracker was uneasy and, like Ezra, he had a healthy respect for Vin's abilities.
"I don't like this, Chris, there's something not right…." Tanner chewed his bottom lip before he finished, "I think we ought to check the caves out first..."
"I can wait here," Ezra offered, unwilling to hinder the other men in any way.
"No… it's too dangerous to just leave you here. Further up the trail there's a place where you can rest with the horses," Vin stated. "Chris and I can walk up to the caves from there and check it out."
"Do you think it might be Jenkins?" Chris said, unable to hide his surprise.
Vin frowned before he answered slowly, "I don't know, but…"
"But it's not worth taking the risk," Ezra supplied as he watched Larabee before him.
Ezra's words seemed to make up Chris's mind as he nodded and said, "Let's do this." With that, he urged his horse forward and they slowly began to trek up towards the caves.
They rode for another fifteen minutes before Vin called a halt and dismounted. He was swift to offer his support to Ezra and the man half-slid, half-fell from the saddle as the world darkened around the edges. Ezra felt Vin hold onto him until the world came back into focus.
"How you doing there, Ezra?" Vin asked, his voice tight with concern.
"Give me a moment…" Ezra gasped, using his good arm to hold onto Vin as he regained his balance.
"Here," Larabee said, coming up to stand behind the gambler and offering his support. Between the two of them, they got Ezra settled on the ground before Vin disappeared to settle the horses.
Within a few minutes they were ready to continue their journey on foot. Vin stood beside Ezra, having placed the three water canteens within easy reach. "We shouldn't be too long, you just rest here," he said.
"I'll be fine," Ezra said, not happy with being left behind but knowing that if it was Jenkins and his men in the caves, in his present state he would be more of a hindrance than a help.
"If you have any problems, just fire your gun," Larabee said, coming to stand next to Vin. Seeing the gambler nod in agreement Chris turned and, with Vin beside him, made his way up towards the caves.
Ezra watched them until they disappeared out of sight, gave them a few minutes longer then, struggling up, he unholstered his gun and started to follow behind them.
Chris and Vin slowly made their way up towards the caves. Suddenly men appeared from above them with guns drawn.
"One move and you're dead," Jenkins said, appearing atop a rock.
Larabee counted Jenkins and two other men above them and knew that another one was missing, as three men had helped Jenkins escape. Chris considered going for his gun but, as if reading his thoughts, Jenkins snarled, "Do it Larabee, and you'll be dead that much sooner."
"You're the dead man," Chris shot back, his eyes glaring but his hand relaxing away from his gun. If Jenkins hadn't killed them right away he must have a reason for keeping them alive, even if it was only to torment them. While they still lived, there was a chance they might escape.
Ezra stopped and took a breath, not as deep as he would have liked, but enough to pull his wavering senses back into focus. He knew that a fever was building and his injury had settled into a throbbing that matched his heartbeat.
As he paused, he heard a noise coming from above him and instinct pulled his gun up. It was this fact alone that allowed him to fire his gun at the same time as the cowboy who suddenly appeared before him.
The noise of the two shots resounded as one as it echoed around the hillside.
Suddenly a loud gunshot sounded from behind Chris and Vin and both men started for their weapons, but a warning shot from Jenkins pulled them up short. "That would be Henry - he went back to see if there was anyone else…" he smiled evilly. "I guess there was," he stated firmly, using the past tense.
"Ezra," Vin gasped, loud enough for Chris to hear.
"I'm gonna kill you Jenkins," Larabee vowed, just itching for his gun to be in his hand.
"Shall we kill them now?" one of the other men asked, his voice holding a slight tremor of excitement.
"No, I owe them… and they're going to be wishing I'd put a bullet in them by the time I'm finished," Jenkins snarled. The other two men laughed along with their leader. "We'll wait for Henry, and then we'll start having some real fun, boys." Again, the minions laughed along with their leader.
Tension-filled minute slipped into tension-filled minute as the strange tableau waited. The three armed men silently holding their guns on the two men who stood tall, awaiting their fate, their fear for their fallen friend at the forefront of their minds.
Suddenly a shot ripped through the air and Jenkins gave a yell of pain as he was flung backwards off the rock he had been standing on. Chris and Vin grabbed for their guns while diving for cover, as the place where they had stood was peppered with bullets from the other two men's guns. The two killers had lost precious moments while they fired at the spots where Chris and Vin had stood, while Larabee and Tanner's aims were true and both of Jenkins' men fell as each man's shot hit home.
As the echoing sound of the gunfight died Chris slowly came out from behind his cover and, with Vin covering, he checked on the three men. All were dead.
Once they had ascertained they were safe, both men rushed towards where the shot that killed Jenkins had come from. As they rounded the bend, they saw a foot sticking out from behind a rock and picked up speed. Both spilled about the boulder to see Ezra leaning again the rock, a crooked smile on his lips as he said blearily, "I do believe I fell over."
"Ezra, what the hell are you doing?" Chris demanded, as they both bent down to assist him.
"Saving... your lives!" retorted the injured man as he allowed the other two men to help him sit up.
"What about the other one down the hill?" Vin asked, as he pulled at Ezra's shirt to see if the gambler's actions had started the wound bleeding again. He sighed in frustration when he saw fresh blood on the roughly-made bandage.
"Luckily I heard him before he saw me," Ezra supplied with a weary smile.
"You should have stayed with the horses," Chris criticized, but he knew that Ezra was right; he had saved their lives, and his own present anger only came from his fear for the other man.
"Lucky for you I didn't," snapped back the injured man, and then winced as Vin tried to get a better look at the wound. "Please, Mr Tanner, why don't you just poke the wound some more while you're at it."
"Sorry Ez, just trying to get the bandage tighter," Vin said, holding his hands off the other man for a second until Ezra relented, and he started to inspect the wound again.
"No... no, I'm sorry," Ezra apologised.
Vin smiled at Ezra's words before he turned serious and said, "We still need to get you back to see Nathan…" Before Ezra could react, Vin placed his hand across the other man's forehead and stated worriedly, "You're getting a temperature."
Ezra's shoulders slumped and, with a grimace of pain, he admitted quietly, "I know; I have been feeling unwell for a while now."
"That's it," Chris stated firmly, standing up, "we're heading back to Four Corners now."
"What about the miscreants?" Ezra questioned.
"They can wait. I'll send Buck and JD back out to pick them up."
"If we leave now we should hit town before nightfall," Vin said, before he added, "I'll get the horses."
"I can travel down to them, Mr Tanner, and it might be faster if I do."
Chris and Vin exchanged looks before Vin agreed, "He's got a point."
"Okay, let's do this," Chris said, reaching out to assist Ezra to stand. Vin was right beside him and slowly, with the other men supporting him, Ezra made his way back down the hill towards the horses.
The trip back to Four Corners ended in a haze for Ezra as his fever grew, and by the time they reached the town he was only vaguely aware of Vin sitting behind him, holding him in the saddle as he slipped in and out of consciousness.
Vin was aware that Ezra was slipping further and further away from them, and it was with a great sigh of relief on his part that they rode into town just as twilight descended.
"Nathan… Nathan!" Vin called as he pulled to a halt in front of the stables, above which the healer had his small clinic.
Nathan appeared above them, and then was rushing down the stairs when he saw Vin riding double and holding an unconscious Ezra within his grasp.
"What happened?" he demanded as he reached up and, with Chris's help, got Ezra from the horse.
"Jenkins escaped, Ezra got shot, bullet's still inside," Chris explained tersely as he helped Nathan carry Ezra's limp form up the stairs.
"He's burning up," the healer said as he felt the heat radiating from his friend.
Once Ezra was settled on the bed, Nathan began to gather what he needed to remove the bullet and treat his friend.
"Need any help?" Chris asked, looking uncomfortable as he watched Nathan work. While he admired Nathan's ability to heal, he didn't like seeing up close and first hand the methods of his trade, especially when it involved one of his friends.
Suddenly the door burst open and Josiah appeared in the room, his fear and concern like a living wave before him. "How is he?" he demanded. Vin had already filled him in on what had happened.
"He's got a fever," Nathan said, still collecting his instruments, "but he seems to be holding his own. I'm just going to see about the bullet." He paused, then continued, "Can I have some space here?"
The other two men nodded and slowly shuffled out, unable to hide their concern for their fallen comrade.
Ezra felt like he was struggling up from a great distance. His whole body felt heavy and his throat was parched. He heard someone groaning and then felt a cup being held to his lips as Nathan urged him to drink. He swallowed slowly, then began to gulp as the cool liquid hit his dry throat. He groaned again when the cup was removed as Nathan insisted, "Take it easy, Ez…. Just sips." The cup reappeared by his lips and he sipped at the cool water. "You with me now, Ezra?" Nathan asked as he finally removed the cup.
Ezra considered ignoring the question, but he knew from experience that that never worked with the healer. With great effort he forced his eyes open. The world faded about him then came back into focus and he was surprised to see that Nathan was not alone: Beside him stood the other members of the regulators who defended the small town of Four Corners.
"Good to see you back with us, Ezra," Vin said, a wide smile filling his face.
"How long…?" the injured man asked, surprised at how weak his own voice sounded.
"You've been out for the last three days… your fever broke last night," Nathan said. Ezra could see the lines of stress on the healer's face and knew that he had not been alone during his time of illness.
"Jenkins?" he asked, his last memory vague.
"Dead," Chris supplied, moving to stand closer to the bed.
"Ain't that a fact," Buck interrupted. "Me an' JD had the pleasure of bringing him and his cohorts back to town."
"Imagine I slept through all that," Ezra stated dryly, before the world suddenly tilted and he gasped as it righted. He felt exhausted, even though he had only just awoken.
"All right, that's enough folks…" Nathan said, moving to shoo the others from the room. "Ezra still needs his rest."
As the others moved from the room, Larabee held back. Nathan, seeing the serious look in his leader's eyes and knowing that he had been troubled over the last few days, nodded and whispered quietly, "A few minutes, Chris… that's all."
When the others left, Chris moved back to the bed and said, "We nearly lost you, Ezra…." He paused, then added, "We should have come back to town straight away, like Vin said."
"Jenkins needed to be caught," Ezra said, then seeing Larabee was about to argue he stated firmly, "It was my decision, Chris."
The use of his first name gave Larabee pause and, seeing the determined look in the injured man's eyes, he slowly nodded before he turned and walked from the room.
Ezra closed his eyes, unable to fight the exhaustion any longer. He heard the door open and close and knew that Nathan had returned. The healer moved quietly about the room and lulled the injured man back into a healing sleep, secure in the knowledge that Chris Larabee respected him and his decision.
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