I Took A Gamble
Chris knew that he was laying on the ground… the hard ground. He could feel the small stones as they dug into his back, yet he knew that it was not the stones or his position that was causing the jolting pain to flare from his shoulder, right next to his armpit. It was worse than that; it was the kind of pain he had only felt a few times before - a few times when he had been… shot!!
Slowly he opened his eyes and grimaced at the sun as it burned into them, unshielded. He groaned and attempted to lift his arms to cover his face - this action bringing about a tearing gasp of raw agony from his lips as his injured side protested such movement.
After an undetermined amount of time, the pain began to fade and the world slipped back into reality; the reality of a throbbing wound. Chris felt someone move to crouch beside him.
"Hurts like the devil when you do that, doesn't it Mr Larabee?" There was the trace of a smile in the tone, and Chris knew from the voice that it was the southern gentlemen of the seven who spoke.
"Standish?" he questioned, this time only squinting his eyes open. He spat the name out, barely hiding his annoyance.
"In the flesh, Mr Larabee," Ezra offered, unable to hide his relief at seeing the gunslinger regain consciousness. He had been fast gnawing his way through his fingernails as his agile mind calculated their chances of getting out of their present situation with no horses, very little water and no idea of how far they would have to travel to reach help.
"What happened?" Chris asked, swallowing and struggling to refrain from coughing. He knew that would only cause him more pain, and he seriously doubted that he would remain conscious if he gave in to the urge.
"Here… drink this," Ezra said, gently lifting the injured man's head and allowing him to take several swallows from their one precious canteen. When he saw that Chris had had his fill, he continued, "We were attacked… your horse was shot out from under you at the same time as you were injured…. My horse…." The gambler stopped, closing his eyes in some distress, not sure that he should tell Larabee that he had given up his horse in order to save their lives. The robbers had left them alive only because they were convinced that they would not survive the harsh terrain in which they had been left stranded - it was a fact that they had found very funny, judging from their laughter and catcalls as they rode off.
"Your horse?" Chris urged, his eyes now accustomed to the light, the worst of which Ezra was shielding with his own body.
Standish glanced away, biting his lip before he answered, as near to honestly as he could, "I am afraid to have to admit that my mount was removed from my ownership by force…." Seeing the look this earned him, he sighed and offered, "It was taken… er… stolen."
"Stolen?" Chris repeated, frowning as his befuddled mind tried to come to terms with Ezra's simple words.
"Yes, the… er… thieves stole him," Ezra confirmed before he added, still annoyed with himself for not being able to stop them, "It's what they do, Mr Larabee… the thieves… robbers… or whatever else you deem to call them… they steal." Larabee raised an eyebrow and glared at the gambler, who just smiled weakly in return, realising that his words had not come out quite as he had intended.
"Where are we?" Chris decided to change the subject. He was concerned; there was something not quite right about Ezra, but the gunslinger wasn't able to put his finger on it. He decided that it could wait; their first priority was to get out of the heat and, if possible, reach safety and have his wound looked at. He glanced down and noted that Ezra's fine linen shirt had been ripped up and was now in use as a rough bandage, tied firmly about his injury. He shot the gambler another look and noticed that the man was only wearing his red jacket to ward off the glare of the sun. Chris could already see signs of burning on the other man's chest, neck and face.
Standish, meanwhile, was also looking about, not sure how best to answer Larabee's question of their location. The gambler was not sure where they were; they had been chased by the raiders for quite some distance, both men knowing that they could not face off the six men who pursued them. "I think we are quite a few miles off the trail between Four Corners and Broken Back," Ezra ventured, raising his hands and shielding his eyes as he looked off into the distance.
"We need to get out of this sun," Chris stated, his voice sounding tired and his face etched with pain.
Ezra sighed; he had been having that self-same thought for the past hour while he had waited for Larabee to awaken. "There is no shelter in the immediate area, Mr Larabee… but if you think you can manage, I believe I see some rocks in the distance…. They might afford us some protection from the sun."
Chris attempted to rise, then slumped back with a startled gasp, his chest heaving as he fought the wave of sickness that washed over him. "Here…" he heard Ezra saying from a distance, "let me help you, and take it slowly... I do believe that prudence and caution would be better in this situation, as I fear that I will not be able to carry you for any distance in this heat, Mr Larabee." Gentle hands gripped him and he was very carefully assisted to his feet. The gambler easily slipped a supporting shoulder under Larabee's uninjured arm to give him further assistance.
"There now, Mr Larabee," Ezra said with a toothy smile of satisfaction, "we are indeed lucky that I am smaller than you, as I don't have to stoop too much to support you."
"Ezra, you're not that much smaller than me," Larabee shot back, exasperated that he had to be supported at all.
The gambler sighed sadly before changing the subject by saying, "Here… take my hat… you must have lost yours when we were being chased."
"I don't want your hat, Ezra," snapped Chris, glaring at his companion; he could see the damage the sun had already done to the southerner's fairer skin.
"It will keep the sun off…" the gambler began to explain.
He fell silent as Larabee snarled, his tone bitter and angry, "Fuck sake, Ezra, dying of sunstroke is the least of my worries…. Being stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with a bullet hole in me, Lord knows how far to medical assistance, and a gambler with a penchant to flee at the first sign of trouble… I think those are my major problems at the moment, don't you?"
Ezra took another steadying breath, surprised at just how much Larabee's bitter words had hurt, and answered, his tone low and shaking slightly, "I know that you would have preferred to be 'stuck out here', as you so eloquently put it, with Mr Tanner or Mr Wilmington, as their knowledge of the terrain is more extensive than mine and their survival instincts honed from years of living with this type of danger, and…" he added, his voice catching as he spoke, "and their loyalty already proven to you, but I think, just this once, we should push aside our opinions of each other and work together to get out of here."
"Hell, Ezra, even JD would be a better companion out here than you… at least he mightn't have lost his horse."
Ezra felt stung anew by Chris's words and could not understand where all the animosity was coming from. He continued to worry at his lip until he felt blood slip into his mouth. Raising a hand, he wiped it away and concentrated on putting one step in front of the other as he half-carried Larabee, who was growing heavier by the minute, across the burning heat of the desert, which was now smouldering under the fierce midday glare of the merciless sun. The heat was such that Ezra was certain he could feel the soles of his boots begin to soften and melt, yet still he continued to march ever forward, carrying his semi-conscious companion as he attempted to reach the distant dot of shelter.
An indeterminate amount of time later, Chris let out an exhausted sigh, gasped, attempted to cough as his dry throat protested, and tilted towards the ground, his strength gone. It was only Ezra's firm grip that prevented him from tumbling headlong onto the hard earth. The gambler slowly, carefully, lowered the unconscious man to the ground and, breathing heavily, he swiped at the sweat that insisted on trickling into his eyes. His hat was next to useless in this heat, and he could feel his skin prickling under the continued attack of the sun… already his hands and neck were sore to the touch and his skin felt stretched over his body.
With a defeated sigh, Ezra noted tiredly that they still had a fair distance to cover before they reached the little outcrop of rocks. Looking down at his unconscious companion, he also knew that he would now have to carry Larabee the rest of the way. The other man desperately needed to get to the protection that those rocks might offer, and Chris was in no condition to make it under his own steam… and Ezra was determined, this time, not to run out on the man in black.
Collapsing down on his knees beside the other man, Ezra slowly and carefully opened the canteen that the horse thieves had left them and, licking at his own parched lips, held the rim of the bottle to Chris's mouth, allowing just the smallest of trickles to ripple across his lips. Larabee's mouth opened eagerly as he sensed the liquid and Standish carefully measured a mouthful, then another, allowing Chris to swallow before he reluctantly pulled the canteen away. He then took the smallest amount of water for himself - enough only to ease his chapped lips and tease his mouth with what it was missing. Screwing the lid tight onto the canteen, he placed it carefully across his back, making sure the strap was secure, then bending down he struggled to lift the dead weight of Chris Larabee up and across his shoulder.
Ezra stumbled and swayed under the extra weight until he could adjust himself to take it evenly. Then, forcing himself upwards, he began to stagger along, carrying Larabee as the sun continued to beat unmercilessly down on the pair of them.
Standish had no idea how long he had been moving; his whole body had been concentrating on just putting one food in front of the other for so long that he had lost all meaning of time, intent only in keeping upright under the strain of carrying his companion. He did not use the term 'friend' when thinking of Chris Larabee. He knew that the gunslinger only tolerated his presence because he needed his unusual talents, and that Chris had never really forgiven the gambler for sneaking out on the other six back at the Seminole village they had defended when they had first met.
Suddenly Ezra stumbled and went crashing down to his knees; a rock had turned under his boot and he now lay gasping on the ground, near to tears in his suffering and desperation. Chris had bounced off his shoulders and, after groaning once, had lain deathly still. "Damn it… damn it all," the gambler gasped, gripping at the hard earth under his hand before he began to pound at the ground, taking out his frustrations. "Shit… damn it… damn it… shit, shit… shit…." This went on for several minutes until a sliver of sanity returned, then he just lay still, breathing heavily, fighting to regain his composure and push away the throbbing pain from his twisted ankle.
Slowly he raised his head and glanced about. The rocks were just ahead of them; he had actually slipped on the slight incline that led up to the formation. Taking another breath, he slowly clambered up, gasping in pain as his ankle turned under him again, and crawled over to Larabee. Ezra rolled the other man over and checked to make sure he was still breathing. He was surprised when Chris's eyes opened into slits and the man gasped, his tone as dry as his mouth, "You know, for a southern gentlemen you don't half swear a lot."
"Whatever… made you think… that southern gentlemen… didn't swear?" the gambler retorted, before he hung his head in exhaustion and continued, "We are… near the rocks…. I think… there is some shelter there…." He rubbed at his face and knew that the headache he could feel building was a result of his struggle across the land with the sun beating down on him; now he could also add the pain of a twisted ankle to that. Settling back, Ezra decided to give his foot a few minutes' rest before he attempted to move Larabee. He sat rubbing his ankle through his boot and considered his options again.
"I didn't mean it," Chris suddenly gasped, confusing Ezra with his sudden change in topic.
The gambler looked down at the injured man and frowned. "What?" Standish questioned, blinking owlishly at the man, noting the fever-bright eyes and pale complexion even as Larabee ploughed on.
"Earlier… what I said…. JD would… would have lost… his horse…. Hell… that boy… would have lost… his life… as well…." Chris was gasping the words out, and Ezra sank back slightly when he realised that Larabee was rambling… the gunslinger never rambled… it was not natural, and it frightened the gambler more than mere words could describe.
Reaching out, Standish rested a hand on Larabee's uninjured shoulder, saying quietly, as reassuringly as he could, "I know, my friend… I understand…. It's hard to… to trust me after what I did… but truly it was a momentary lack of honour… it won't happen again." Even Ezra was surprised at the pleading quality in his voice, as if begging Chris to believe him. Was this man's acceptance of his offer of apology that important?
"Buck… he… he ran out on me once," Chris suddenly spoke again, his tongue slipping out to run over parched lips. "During the war… we were caught…. He saw a chance to escape… took it…." Larabee tilted his head to look away from the gambler, to hide his hurt as he finished, "Two days before he came back… two days in hell…."
Ezra could only stare at Chris, caught by the raw pain he heard in his voice. He could only wonder at the torment the younger Larabee had suffered at the hands of his enemy during those two days. "But he did come back," Standish stated, moving closer to the other man, knowing that this was important.
"Yeah… he'd gone… to get help…." Chris swallowed before he offered, "I think it… frightened him… more than he'd admit."
Ezra blinked and stopped in his motion of retrieving the canteen. "Frightened him?" he questioned, not sure what Chris was saying.
"The condition… I… we were in… when he got back…. It… it changed him." Now Larabee's tone was sad, infinitely sad as he continued, "I don't think the war… had really affected him until then… but after that he was different… wouldn't let me out… of his sight… protective... as hell…."
"Did you… did you change… because of what happened?" Standish found himself asking before he could prevent himself. He swallowed hard and held still, waiting to see if Larabee would answer.
After several moments of intense silence, Chris slowly nodded. It took a lot of effort but he confided, "Yeah… I hated him… Buck… for the longest time… after that…. But he just kept… hanging about… like a damned… lost puppy…."
Ezra felt his eyebrow rise at that description of the womaniser. "A damned lost puppy… is not how I would describe Mr Wilmington," he offered with a dry smile, deciding that he didn't particularly like this reminiscing side of Larabee.
"My father… he ran out… on us… my ma and me," Chris suddenly stated. Ezra sat back in shock, his mouth falling open. It had to be Larabee's fever; there was no other reason to explain why Chris was being so open about his past - a past that he kept so close to his chest that, if it were a poker game, Standish would never win. "My ma… damn near killed herself… trying to keep us fed…. It did kill her in the end… she just gave up… all because that bastard left us…." Chris settled back exhausted on the hard ground and just lay there, rambling. Ezra had almost convinced himself that the injured man did not know to whom he was talking - that his fever had such a hold that he was not even aware of what he was doing or saying - when that illusion was dispelled as Larabee tilted his head towards Standish and said, "I just… I just… want you to know… that I don't handle… others leaving… very well…. That's why I get so angry with you… why I keep scratching at the same wound…. It's not your fault, Ezra… I guess it's just your way to leave when things get too hot.…"
Standish was on his feet, standing gingerly on his injured ankle and towering over Larabee before the gambler even registered that he had found the strength to do it. "It is not my way… damn it, Mr Larabee…. That is… that is… a more insulting suggestion than saying… that I ran out on you…. I made a mistake… that's all…. I thought the fighting was over… the way… the colonel and his men fled from that village… I honestly thought they were gone… for good… so I went looking for the gold…. It was wrong… I allowed my… my greed to get the better of me…. I know that… Goddamn it… I live with the look in each and every one of your eyes whenever it comes to a crisis…. Will Standish stay…? Can he be trusted…?" He stumbled to a halt, not sure what else to say - not even sure if there was anything else he could say - so he used the adrenaline that he had gained in the only way he knew how… stooping down, he lifted Chris as gently as he could up and across his shoulders again.
"What are you doing?" Chris demanded feebly, gasping in pain as his injured arm hung limply over Ezra's back, surprised and shocked that Standish even had the strength to clamber to his feet.
"We need to get you out of the sun…. I think…" Ezra stumbled, gasping in pain from his injured ankle, then pushing it firmly aside he straightened with determination before he continued, "I think… there is a cave of some sort up there…." Neither man spoke as the gambler fought his way up the small mount, bending almost double under the weight of the other man and hobbling as best he could. At one point Chris spoke, saying roughly, "I can walk…." But Ezra retorted, determined to continue up the slope, gritting his teeth as he spoke, "No… if I put you down… I won't be… able to lift you again.…"
Finally they stumbled across a narrow cave, deep enough to house the pair of them comfortably. The coolness inside was like walking into heaven and Ezra carefully dropped to his knees, ignoring the pain that flared through his own exhausted body as he used the last of his strength to gently lift and settle Chris on the floor. The gunslinger groaned and gasped feebly as he lay on the ground.
Standish somehow managed to get the canteen off his back and opened it with shaking fingers, then he reached over and gently lifted Larabee's head to allow the other man a few precious swallows of the life-giving liquid. "Careful…" Ezra warned as Chris tried to grab weakly at the water as it was moved away. "No more… we need to keep it... make it last…" the gambler stated firmly, screwing the lid back on and setting it down on the floor.
"You need to drink too," Chris stated as firmly as he could, laying too exhausted on the ground to do more than gasp out the words.
"I will… later," Ezra lied, the words slipping past his blackened lips with surprising ease. "After… I've checked… your wound." As he spoke, he began to cautiously unwrap the makeshift bandage, steadfastly ignoring the groan of pain this caused his companion. Standish gasped when he again saw the extent of the damage done to Larabee's shoulder; the bullet must have caught him as he was twisting about to fire. It had gone into the fleshy part of the body, an inch or less from the armpit, drilling a hole through the flesh and coming out the back. Ezra frowned - he did not think that any bones had been caught, but he really could not tell. His torn shirt was soaked with blood, but at least it appeared to have stopped the bleeding… but he knew that he needed something else to use as a bandage. Slowly it dawned on his exhausted mind that he didn't have anything - his jacket was too thick to use and his trousers were too dirty… he cursed having left his vest behind when he had removed his shirt earlier. Sighing, he straightened out his torn shirt as best he could and reapplied it to the wound.
Ezra was pleased to note that Chris had slipped into unconsciousness during this time. He really didn't think he could have stood it if the man had been conscious, as he had to be causing him tremendous pain. Finally, when he was satisfied that he had done the best he could, he sat back and considered their plight.
It was not good. They only had half a canteen - if that - of water left. They were out in the middle of nowhere, with no certainty that the others would even come looking for them - although they were already a day late back. Also, Ezra had no idea how far they were from the main road between Broken Back and Four Corners. Suddenly an idea occurred to him. Standing, he stiffly shrugged out of his red coat. It was nearly dark with dust, but he limped outside their small cave and banged it hard a couple of times against the rock face. Once satisfied with his work, he clambered a bit higher onto the rocks and spread his jacket out, making sure it was weighted down with some stones. If anyone should be looking for them, there was just the slimmest chance that they might see the jacket.
He also realised that he needed to make a fire, as he knew that it would get very cold out in this rough terrain at night. He was pleased to discover that he still had some matches in his pocket, and there was a meagre offering of dried brush about, so he set about gathering what he could. Stumbling back to the cave, he set the fire in front of the opening, ready to light as the evening drew in.
Larabee started to mumble under his breath, the fever now having a firm hold of him. Ezra moved over and sat beside the man; his mouth felt so dry he didn't think he could speak again. Dragging the canteen over, he carefully spilled a few precious drops out onto a small handkerchief he discovered in his back pocket and began to wipe at Larabee's face with it. The heat was such that the cloth was dry within minutes and he dared not use any more water.
Several more hours passed, during which time Standish sat a silent vigil over Larabee. He knew that he had fallen asleep at one stage, because he jerked awake to find that it was now dark outside and was growing colder by the moment. He managed to light the small fire after several attempts, and he hastily grabbed up some more of his collected brush and fanned the fire to higher life. It gave him some small comfort to look into the fire and remember his happier times with the other six men.
Seeing that Chris had started to shiver from the cold, he moved carefully and pulled Larabee up so that the man was resting more comfortably across his lap, sharing their body heat. This seemed to help the gunslinger, as he settled down into a restless slumber instead of a panting fever dream. Ezra reached for the canteen and, opening it, he allowed Chris to take a few long swallows. The man, even while unconscious, clung to the bottle and soon the canteen was empty. After shaking it to ensure that it was indeed empty, the gambler tossed it away; they would have no further need of it.
Standish knew that some would say he had been foolish to give Larabee the last of the water in such a fashion, but he was a gambler and he knew the odds of their being discovered…. He knew that taking sips from the canteen would only stretch out their pain and suffering… at least Chris would know a few moments of comfort before death took him. Ezra found himself praying that Chris would not awaken; he just wanted him to pass without knowing the pain of slowly dying of thirst. It was a hell of a way to die, he decided, as night slowly crawled across the land and his own exhaustion finally stole over him.
The fire died, but neither man noticed it as they had slipped into a stupor, fever having claimed the injured man and exhaustion and thirst the gambler. The night wore on… light began to slither across the land… the beginning of another hot day.
Ezra pried his eyes open as bright light rested on his face. He gasped and tried to swallow, but he was unable to do so; his throat was closing up and his tongue felt swollen and large in his mouth. His eyes even felt dry and glued shut. He tilted his head down to squint at Larabee, who had not moved: he no longer sweated, and his skin seemed stretched over his face, red and blistered. Ezra felt moisture dribble down his chin and, sticking out his tongue, he managed to capture the precious liquid. It was coppery to taste and he suddenly knew that it was blood he was tasting: his own blood from his cracked lips. He savoured the moisture.
He let his head fall forward, his neck seemingly unable to support its weight any longer. With a gentle, "I sorry… Mr Larabee…. So sorry…" he slipped into unconsciousness and, he hoped, the waiting arms of death.
Standish felt hands move him and he feebly fought them; he didn't mind dying, but he really didn't want to move. They left, but only to return almost immediately, this time more insistent as he weakly attempted to fight them off again, but it was a losing battle… there were just too many of them and they would not allow him to lie in peace.
"Damn it, Ezra," came a voice he thought he knew, washing over his cloudy thoughts. "Will you stop fighting us here…?" Then a moist cloth was held against his lips and he gasped a cry of pure agony as he attempted to suck it dry, but his mouth would not co-operate.
He heard another voice call out a caution: "No… Buck… let Vin do what he's doing… you try to give him that water and you'll kill him." Ezra pushed the words aside - they meant nothing to him… all his world consisted of was the moist cloth that was again held to his mouth. He gasped again at the trickle of water that slipped down his tormented throat.
"How's Chris?" Ezra heard another voice ask, this one young and frightened. 'JD?' his mind supplied after several sluggish moments.
"Fever's got a pretty strong hold, but he's not as dehydrated as Ezra…."
Standish suddenly began to cough. It tore at his body and he tried to curl in on himself as the pain radiated out from his stomach, up his chest and into his throat. "Hold him up… that's right, face down, so he can be sick if he needs to…. He's reacting to the water… but he's got nothing in him…." Ezra dry-heaved for several long, agonising minutes as his body fought against the water that it was being given. He slumped back, totally exhausted, and slowly pried open his eyes to stare glassily up into Tanner's concerned face.
"Ezra?" Vin asked, seeing his eyes open. The tracker was holding tightly about the gambler's shoulders, making sure he was upright and that he would not choke. Ezra didn't have either the strength or voice to answer, so he just lay there gasping like a fish out of water. Vin seemed to understand, as he took the cloth that Josiah had wet again and gently held it against the gambler's cracked and torn mouth, carefully forcing Standish's lips open to allow the warm water to dribble into his mouth and down the back of his throat.
Standish lay like a helpless baby in Tanner's arms as the bounty hunter repeated this process several times, until finally the effort of keeping his eyes open just became too much for Ezra and he closed them again to slip into the waiting arms of exhaustion. His last memory was of Vin's anxious voice calling out, "Ezra… Ezra…? Nathan… damn it… quick…." Then it was all gone.
The next time Ezra opened his eyes it was dark outside the cave, but a cheery fire burned just outside and he could make out the shapes of several men. "Ezra!" He tilted his head to look into the concerned face of JD. "Nathan…" the boy then called out loudly, causing the gambler to wince. "Nathan…." The healer of the group suddenly appeared at his side. "He's awake," JD finished, pointing towards Standish to prove his point.
Nathan nodded and, moving forward, he rested a gentle hand on Ezra's brow. The man was still hot, sporting a fair-sized fever. "How you feeling there, Ezra?" Nathan asked, his face twisting up with concern.
"Thir… thirss…" the gambler attempted a couple of times, but he was unable to get the words past his parched throat.
"Here… drink this… but slowly," Nathan cautioned, holding a canteen to the gambler's lips. After the first few hesitant swallows, Ezra wanted to grab the bottle and never let go, as warm water had never tasted so good. "Easy… easy…" the healer cautioned, forcing the canteen away from the gambler's lips.
Ezra lay panting, his glassy look following the water as it was moved away. Then, licking at lips that were just starting to feel again, he asked, his voice raspy and barely above a grating whisper, "Chris?"
Nathan shot a look further back into the small cave, over to where Buck and Vin sat beside the other injured man. "He's doing all right, Ezra… sleeping at the moment…. He's got a fever… but he wasn't in such a bad state as you…."
"Bullet… wound?" Ezra queried weakly, not really understanding Nathan's words and fighting to keep his eyes open.
"It was a nasty wound… and he lost some blood… but it would have been worse if he'd suffered the same level of dehydration that you did…." Nathan paused, not sure what to say, as it had been obvious to the other five men that Ezra had suffered the lack of water to a far greater degree than Chris. Finally Nathan said, reaching out and resting a reassuring hand on the injured man's shoulder, "Thanks to you, Ezra, he should be all right… once the fever breaks." The healer stumbled to a halt when he saw that Ezra was asleep once more, but this time his breathing was more relaxed, even the fever was slowly departing. "Sleep well, my friend," Nathan finished, gently squeezing the hand that rested on Ezra's shoulder.
"I remember the attack… my horse was shot out from under me." Ezra could hear Chris's voice as he lay there just on the edge of waking. "Then I was shot… I must have hit my head or something, because I don't really remember very much after that…." There was a long pause before Larabee continued, "I remember Ezra… walking… I think I was on his back… then water… I remember him holding the canteen to my lips…."
"He nearly died, Chris. I don't think he took any of the water…." This was Nathan's voice, and he sounded so serious. Ezra wanted to speak up, to inform them that he was nowhere near dying and that the good healer had made a mistake. He was just tired.
"Why? Why would he do that… risk himself?" The disbelief in Chris's tone caused Ezra to wince. Even after all this, Larabee still found it hard to believe that Standish would place the gunslinger's life above his own.
"Because he had to. The first time he came back… it was to stay." This was from Vin, and the gambler felt a warm feeling suddenly suffuse his body. The bounty hunter had always seemed to understand Standish, and this time was no exception.
"I think I gave him a hard time…" Larabee confided, his voice edged with hesitation. "Out there… he was… trying to save my life and… and I threw that first time he left us in his face again."
"What did he say when you did?" This was from Josiah. Ezra idly wondered who was watching the town if they were all there.
"Something about how I would have preferred to be out here with Buck or Vin… and then…" there was a touch of humour in his tone, "I think he told me off…. Said about how we had to push our opinions aside and work together…. Only it was him doing all the work… walking, carrying and… and dying…." His voice caught on the last word.
"Hey… hey, Chris, that's enough of that…" Nathan said firmly. "Ezra's going to be all right… though it was touch and go there for a while, I will admit…. You're both still suffering from heat- stroke and dehydration, and your wound needs looking after… but you'll both heal, given time and rest… plenty of rest." "Which I am… hardly… likely to get… what with you… all talking… all day," Ezra finally mumbled, and was surprised by the silence that greeted his words. He had not realised that he had spoken out loud - he had only been thinking the words in his head.
"Ezra?" Nathan said, moving over to sit beside the exhausted man.
"Why," Standish asked in annoyance at his own weakness, "do I still feel… so tired…? I fear that I must have… slept the day away." He managed to open his eyes just enough to catch the shocked look that filtered across the other men's faces. "What?" he asked, in sudden fear.
Nathan looked over towards Chris, then let his glance flicker towards the others before he offered, his tone gentle, as if preparing the injured man for a shock, "Ezra, you've been… unconscious… sleeping for nearly two days…. "
"Two days…?" the gambler repeated, his voice croaking in amazement. He looked over towards the others and could tell from their expressions that they had been very concerned for him. He swallowed hard. "I… two days…? I was… er… for two days? How?"
"You ever worry us like that again, Ezra…." Chris let the threat hang, but he was smiling warmly at the gambler, sitting up and looking far healthier than Standish thought he had a right to.
Standish opened his mouth, a frown marring his handsome features as he asked, "How… how did you find us? I mean… I thought…." He trailed to a stop; he didn't really want to admit - even to these men - that he had thought Larabee and himself were going to die.
"It was your jacket," Vin said, moving over and offering Nathan the canteen, which the healer held out to the injured gambler.
Ezra gratefully accepted it, and the support Nathan offered to allow him to drink, and he swallowed deeply before he repeated, "My jacket… you actually saw my jacket…?"
"You did place it out there to be seen, didn't you?" Buck asked, before he continued, "It damn near gave the rest of us a heart attack when Vin saw it through his spyglass. He took off so fast, he didn't even tell us why…. We thought he'd seen…. Well, it gave me a bad gut-feeling, let me tell you."
The bounty hunter looked slightly shamefaced as he waved Buck's words and complaint aside and continued, "We got worried when you were late…. I mean," he added with a slight smile over towards the man in question, "Chris here doesn't exactly have the best track record of returning to Four Corners safely… so we thought we'd ride out and meet you…. But instead we met the guys who must have robbed you. They had your horse, Ezra…."
"We got him back for you," JD butted in eagerly. "I took real good care of him for you… he's fine - fed, watered, and I brushed him yesterday… he's waiting outside," the boy stated proudly.
"Thank you, JD," Ezra commented warmly. He had been sorely distressed at the loss of his horse.
"Anyway," Buck took up the story. "Once we knew you were in trouble and we found out roughly where they had stopped you…" Buck smiled warmly at the memory of just how they had got that little piece of information from the horse thieves, "it was only a matter of time before we found you."
"Time you nearly didn't have," Nathan slipped in soberly.
"Seeing your red jacket just hastened our finding you," Vin finished, a smile creasing his features… which sobered suddenly as he took in the healer's words and remembered the state of the two men when they had first entered the cave.
"So what made you put your jacket out like that, Ezra?" Josiah asked, tilting his head as he watched the other man consider his answer.
Finally the gambler just shrugged and smiled his toothy grin, his face splitting as he offered weakly, admitting his one major fault openly, "I took a gamble."
"And so did I, when I allowed you to join us again," Chris suddenly spoke up, causing the others to turn to look at him in some confusion. The man dressed in black settled back, finishing, "And, if you ask me… I think I got the better hand out of the deal. I will never doubt you again, Ezra… you have my word on that."
Ezra smiled, looking at the men who surrounded him. He could see the acknowledgement of Larabee's words in all of their eyes, and he was not so sure that they had gotten the better prize out of the deal.
"Ezra…" Chris spoke up again, this time his voice deadly serious. "I want to thank you for saving my life… and," he added firmly, "we're going to have a talk… a long talk… about what we discussed before…." The gunslinger's words informed the gambler that he had remembered more of their talk than he had let on.
Seeing the warm look directed at him, Ezra nodded and agreed shyly, "I think I'd like that, Mr Larabee."
What the other five men thought of the coded conversation, Ezra could not imagine. They obviously knew that something profound had changed between the two men, but they appeared to be just so glad to have their two missing friends back with them, safe and relatively sound, that they did not pass comment on it. As the gambler settled back down to sleep again, at Nathan's instance, he felt a swell of contentment that he could not remember having felt before.
|On to: The Gamble Paid Off|
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