Title: The Quiet Week, part 2 of 2
Disclaimer, Notes: Please see part one. Much obliged.
The Quiet Week
Ezra had no doubt as they were lead into the small woods that the large man had meant what he said about hurting them. Actually, it was at Vin that the man's gaze had focused, and Ezra realized he was going to have to think of a way to distract the men so they left the tracker alone. Vin, however, seemed resigned to his fate. Where he moved in front of the gambler, his shoulders remained slumped, his head bowed.
Vin hated being beaten. It wasn't his first time by a long shot, but that never made the inevitability of the pain any less frightening. He just hoped Ezra would stay out of it. Somehow, he doubted it.
The tracker actually smiled as he thought of the gambler walking protectively behind him. Damn, the man could be clever sometimes. Not only had Ezra saved him from having to walk to Tuscosa and his death, but had gotten the outlaws turned around into thinking that Four Corners was the place to go first. Even better, by sending the horses on ahead, he guaranteed that the rest of the seven would be alerted to their predicament and come get them, long before Cavendish caught on. Now, if they could only survive until then….
Vin was interrupted in his thoughts by the lightening of the area around them. They had reached the meadow. Somehow, it didn't look as inviting as it had an hour ago. What a shame.
Both he and Ezra were roughly shoved to the ground, the cuffs on their hands preventing them from catching themselves. Simon then came over and pulled them both into sitting positions, propping their backs against a couple of pine trees. Malone and Cal stood off to one side while Cavendish approached them. The evil in his look was so vicious that Vin was already cowering a little. Tension filled the space between them.
"Sir, before you lay into Mr. Tanner, might I inquire as to how I should address you and your motley crew? I mean, it seems awfully rude of me if all I can do is call you the large man, the wounded man, the army man and the smaller one." Ezra's sweet southern charm eased the moment, and he smiled, gold tooth flashing. Cavendish stopped, and looked a little surprised. Simon glanced up from where he crouched next to the captives and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, 'why not?'
Cavendish rubbed a bristled covered jaw and contemplated Ezra. The gambler certainly looked harmless enough, and the knowledge wouldn't do him that much good in a few days. Sticking a meaty thumb at his chest, the large man replied, "Dan Cavendish." The he indicated to the ex-Union man and named him as Simon. The wounded Cal and jittery Malone came next. Ezra nodded at each man as the introductions were made.
"Lovely to meet you all." He tilted his head sideways, his gaze on Cal. "May I ask how you came upon such misfortune, my friend?" Cal opened his mouth to answer, but Cavendish shushed him.
"No," the large man stated firmly. He knelt in front of Ezra and looked him deep in the eyes. The gambler didn't blink. "Do you always talk this much, Standish?" Cavendish asked.
"Only when I'm nervous, I assure you. And I must admit to being a little nervous. Wouldn't you be in my position?" The words spilled out in a torrent, causing Cavendish to shake his head. Then he backhanded Ezra sharply across the mouth.
Ezra rolled to one side, gasping, feeling the flush of the hit on his skin. Simon leant over and looked at him upside down, grinning like a Cheshire cat. From somewhere before him he heard Cavendish speaking again.
"I wonder how many men have wanted to do that, Mr. Standish. A word of advice. You talk too much." The large man looked at Simon, and smiled. "Gag him." Ezra grimaced.
Well, that went well, he chided himself.
Chris viewed the bright clear sky with enormous distaste. He stumbled down the boarding house steps with the same pounding headache he'd had since this morning, the painful reminder of how much alcohol he had drunk previously and how little of anything else had passed his lips during that time. After Buck's remarks this morning, Chris had resolved not to have another drink until he was sober enough to handle it. Unfortunately, it had only taken a few hours of listening to Josiah's incessant hammering on the church roof while he was trying to take a nap to drive him back to the saloon. The headache forming behind his right eye had convinced him that only whiskey would soothe this new pain.
This time, however, when he entered the saloon, Buck was sitting up at Ezra's table, shuffling. Not playing, not drinking, just shuffling. He called Chris over as he entered, and all it took was one question to reanimate Chris' anger.
"Can I interest you in a game of chance?" Buck asked innocently as the cards flowed beneath his fingers. Chris merely glared at Buck, and turned around. Part of him was aware of what Buck was doing, but his remembered anger at Ezra was too much in control. He almost slammed the batwing doors off their hinges as he left.
Buck sighed as Chris left, and placed the cards on the table. He rubbed his tired hands and wondered how Ezra could keep up the monotonous movement for so long. All that shuffling had left his fingertips tingling.
JD and Nathan passed Chris on his way to the livery, their leader looking hell bent on getting away from town for a while. Chris had acknowledged them with barely a nod. As they reached the saloon, Josiah had joined them, needing refreshment after hours spent fixing up the church. Josiah looked past them, seeing Chris's black duster disappearing into the stable.
"Is he still…?" Josiah asked, trying not to show too much concern in front of the boy. Interestingly enough, though, it was JD who answered, once more proving himself not to be as young and naïve as expected.
"No, he looked sober. Sober and mean, to be exact." JD shrugged, and walked into the bar. Josiah and Nathan shared a glance, and followed. Their feet naturally began to carry them over to their usual table when a loud jovial call made them turn.
Nathan stood stunned to see Buck waving them up to Ezra's card table, a deck of cards at the tall gunslingers fingers. It was like looking at a painting of a landscape but someone had replaced the trees with oversized pitchforks. The tableau was all wrong. As they wandered up to join Buck, the healer couldn't resist a jibe.
"Aw now, Buck! Don't tell me you've started to emulate Ezra. One blackguard is enough in this band." Nathan tried to look disappointed, but JD slipped into the seat next to Buck without a thought. The young man smiled up at the other two.
"No, no, don't be stupid," Buck admonished in a hushed tone, and hastily indicated that they sit. He waved them in closer, ignoring the puzzled expressions, and hurriedly whispered, "You seen Chris?"
"He just left," Josiah responded, "I think he's going for a ride."
Buck leaned back with a huge sigh of relief and grinned. "Thank god, I thought I'd have to sit up here and shuffle all night long. I've been having weird daydreams that these cards are going to slowly but surely take all the skin off my fingers." He pushed the deck away, and JD picked it up, preparing to shuffle them himself.
"Why would you want to sit here all day and shuffle?" Nathan asked. Buck was about to respond when cards spewed out across the table top. JD looked up sheepishly, and started gathering them back together.
"Because," Buck said, leaning over conspiratorially, "I figured out it stops Chris from drinking." He moved back, looking extremely pleased with himself.
JD paused, looking completely nonplussed at the remark, and Nathan narrowed his eyes. Only Josiah cocked his head, his eyes showing immediate comprehension, and the expression was not lost on Buck. The gunslinger's moustache twitched into a smile.
"Why would shuffling…." JD began, but Josiah was already talking.
"Very clever Buck. I think you've hit on it." The preacher said, nodding.
"Hit on what?" the young sheriff said. Nathan looked at the cards in JD's hands, and his eyes widened.
"Wait," Nathan said, "you mean all it takes…."
"Is the right distraction!" Buck finished.
"Okay, now I'm really not…" JD tried again.
"How long do you think it will work?" this from Josiah.
"Until he gets back. Then, I think, life should get back to normal."
"But you can't just shuffle cards for two more days, maybe more," Nathan argued, not entirely sure he liked the idea. Buck opened his mouth, but JD slammed his hands on the table, causing the cards to fly around again. Inez, who had been approaching with four beers, quietly turned around again.
"Would someone please tell me what you all are talking about?" The boy seethed. Josiah chuckled, and Nathan looked somewhat rueful. Buck started to pull the cards together again as he explained.
"JD, you know how Chris gets when there is nothing to do…" He looked up, not sure of the reaction he was going to get. JD surprised him, just as he had the others a few minutes before.
"Of course. He starts thinking too much about Sarah and Adam, and then he starts in on the bottle. But I've only ever seen him really get drunk a few times."
"You ever wonder why that is, as there have been more than a few quiet spells that have hit us before?"
"Well no, not really. I just try to avoid him when it does happen." JD looked down at the table, ashamed at what he'd just admitted. Buck patted him on the back. Josiah continued, picking up on Buck's train of thought.
"Most people do, son, me included. Nobody likes to see a man fighting his demons and losing, especially when that person won't let them in to help. With Chris its even worse because he can get dangerous."
"Yeah, but that don't stop Buck." JD replied, looking at his best friend.
"I've had years of practice, kid," Buck replied quietly, "but I'll be the first to admit that I rarely succeed. Usually something has to happen to get Chris to come back, and, since we been here, things seem to happen all the time." He grinned, and JD couldn't resist a small smile in return. "But something else has been different since we been here, and that is, Chris ain't alone anymore. He's healing 'cause of that, but that doesn't mean he still doesn't withdraw into himself. He still needs distractions." He paused, drawing in a breath. "What I figured out today is that something else in particular has been keeping him on his toes in quiet times, and I think that, more than anything, has been what has kept him sober…" and here he tapped the cards for emphasis.
JD looked at the cards, and then up at Buck. His face remained puzzled, but it was clear that the gears were working. Suddenly he brightened.
"Oh, you mean the fact that he fights all the time with Ezra!" he fairly yelled this statement, much to the dismay of the quiet healer and preacher. Buck laughed. Inez nodded, judging that the time was right, and came forward again with the drinks.
"So, what?" JD continued as Inez carefully placed the mugs down, "You figure that if we just keep reminding Chris of what Ezra might think or say, it will keep him sober?" He upturned the last phrase into a question, his eyes searching Buck's. He was gratified when the dark gunslinger nodded, a grin on his face.
"Yeah. But I need your help. I can't shuffle these cards alone."
Nathan grimaced. "I'm not sure I like the idea of us acting like Ezra," he stated. The healer shared Chris's dislike of Ezra's favorite pastimes, although his stance was more on moral grounds. Chris just found Ezra frustrating because he constantly shirked his duties as a result.
Buck frowned, "Oh, now, I don't mean we all start gambling and conning people. Hell, I wouldn't even know where to start. That's why I need you guys to help me."
"I think, my friends," said Josiah, "that we need a plan." He tapped his skull, "and I think I may have got one."
Thursday night to Friday morning…middle of nowhere
Luckily for the Vin and Ezra, the outlaws got tired pretty quickly with the game of beating up on the two men. The tracker certainly got the worst of it, earning him some bruised ribs and a black eye from the meat fisted Cavendish. It left him barely conscious. Simon seemed to be the one who most disliked Ezra, giving him a split lip and threatening him with the knife he had stolen from Ezra earlier. Horribly for the gambler, the gag had stayed on the whole time, and he nearly choked as some of the cloth in his mouth made it down his throat. It was the quiet Cal who saved him, removing the gag briefly so Ezra could cough up some of the fabric. Unfortunately, then he replaced it. Malone was no where around while this happened, apparently hunting for their dinner.
In the end, the long day was felt more by the bandits as it came to a close, the result of having spent several days on foot prior to meeting up with Ezra and Vin. Dinner was meager, as it was clear the outlaws didn't have much to split between them. Malone had finally shown his usefulness by getting them a couple of rabbits to stew, but the tough meat had no compliments. There was no bread, or vegetables with which to eat it with. Neither of the lawmen were offered any food. However, they were allowed to crawl to the spring to drink.
Ezra bathed his stinging jaw and lip under the cool water, and relished in its slight comfort. Rough hands pulled him away, however, and Malone threw him back to where Vin lay as if asleep. Simon came over and stuffed the cloths back into Ezra's mouth, enjoying the obvious discomfort this was causing to the man's lip and jaw, then tied the gag around his head again. Meanwhile, Malone began to fill up the canteens.
Ezra moved over next to Vin and nudged him. The tracker peered up at him through one swollen eye and one half lidded one. He had been on the verge of sleep. Ezra motioned that they should move back and get into the shadows of the trees so as to seem more innocuous. Together, they shifted backwards until they each leaned against a tree. Vin closed his eyes again, and fell asleep. Ezra continued to regard the scene in front of them.
From out of Malone's satchel, two bottles of whiskey had appeared. Apparently, they were for a special occasion, and this appeared to be one. Ezra shook his head at the complete confidence these men had in their plans to sell him and Vin. The bottles were handed around until all four of the outlaws were completely inebriated. The revelry continued until around about an hour before dawn, then they all fell asleep in a drunken haze. All, that is, except Cavendish.
Seeing his men snoring all around him, the large man got up and stumbled over to Ezra. He had felt the gambler's eyes on him all night, and for some reason, this had made him extremely angry. He couldn't even remember why they'd let the man stay alive in the first place. He knelt in front of Ezra, and smiled at the dark shadow that encompassed much of the gambler's jaw beneath the growing stubble.
"Howizz yer head, little man?" Cavendish slurred. When Ezra didn't answer, Cavendish laughed. "Oh, I forgot. Hol'onna minute." He leant forward and ripped the gag from Ezra's mouth. The gambler gasped at the roughness, and swallowed a few times to work some saliva into his dry mouth. Cavendish continued to smile.
"So, little man, whatizz it ya do that makes men put bounties on yer head?" the large man asked, his whiskey laden breath blowing into Ezra's face. The gambler was hard pressed not to flinch away.
"I talk too much," he deadpanned, his voice hoarse. Nearly choking had really hurt his throat, and much of his cockiness was lost. Cavendish laughed at the remark, then knocked him sideways again.
"Think you're so clever, doncha, Standish." Cavendish hissed in his ear. "Well soon you'll be hangin' at the enna a rope and words ain't gonna save ya."
Ezra merely glared back at the large man, his green eyes piercing. Once again, that unsettled feeling washed over the outlaw boss, and left a nasty taste in his mouth. Standing up, he pulled out his gun and aimed it at the gambler's head. Ezra merely blinked. Then he willed himself to look suitably terrified, letting fear make his whole body tremble. Part of him was a little annoyed at himself because it hadn't been that hard to bring the emotion to the surface. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect. Cavendish saw the fear, and, as expected, smiled gleefully. Then he turned away and made his way back to the campfire and his men. Within minutes, his loud snores rocked the meadow.
Ezra sighed and brought himself back to a sitting position. He was still shaking a little and had to breath out a few times before he got himself under control again. Then he looked up at the sky, and over at Vin. Scooting over, he nudged the tracker a few times. Slowly, Vin regained consciousness, something he'd had a lot of trouble hanging onto earlier. He looked at Ezra above him, and noticed the gag was off.
"Time to go, Ez?" he asked sleepily. The gambler nodded his head, while indicating him to be quiet.
"I need you to reach into my vest pocket and get out the length of wire I have hidden in there. Can you do that?" the gambler whispered hoarsely. Vin nodded, and struggled to his knees.
The tracker turned so his back was facing Ezra, and felt around the gambler's midsection with his hands. When he found one of the pockets he heard Ezra tell him, "No, the other side." Creeping across the man's stomach, Vin quickly found the other pocket and started poking around for the wire. It was embedded into the fabric, and Vin had to pull some to get it out. He heard the stitching tear as he pulled it out, and Ezra's mutterings about what he had to go through to help his friends. This caused Vin to smile.
When he looked over his shoulder, he found Ezra had turned around as well, his cuffed hands outstretched. Understanding, Vin dropped the wire into the gambler's hands. Then he moved back to the tree and leant back to wait. He didn't even notice that he fell asleep again.
Insistent shaking on his shoulder brought Vin back to the living, and he found Ezra leaning over him. He moved so Ezra could unlock him. A couple minutes later, he heard the shackle lock click, and sighed happily as the heavy irons fell from his hands. Ezra smiled at him.
"Sorry it took so long." The gambler said, "but its been a while since I've had to use that particular skill." Vin nodded, and looked up at the lightening sky. He got to his feet shakily, one hand on his bruised ribs. Ezra, meanwhile, had tiptoed over to where the other men slept, and was fishing around the bags for his guns and the Winchester. He grinned broadly as he found his Remington and the Colt, happy that everything was going to plan, and was about to remove the other guns from the slumbering outlaws when Vin hissed something. The smile abruptly fell from Ezra's face as he heard the sounds of some kind of animal racing through the woods.
Swearing, he rushed back to Vin's side, shoved the Remington into the man's hands and motioned for him to sit back down. The wild pig plunged into the meadow, waking up all the outlaws at once. In seconds, the four men were on their feet, guns raised. Squealing, the pig raced from the area, and one by one the outlaws started giggling. One hour's sleep had not been enough to clear their heads of the whiskey, but, unfortunately for the lawmen, it did not look as if the outlaws were going back to sleep anytime soon. Sleepy eyed, Simon looked over to ensure that the two captives were still sitting by the same trees. Ezra and Vin looked back without expression.
Cavendish stretched and yawned, and ordered Malone to get the water boiling in the cookpot. The smaller man quickly complied, and Cal turned away to go relieve himself off to one side. Simon continued to stare at the captives, certain something was wrong. Then he looked more closely at Ezra, and realized what it was.
"Hey," the ex-Union man said to Cavendish, "where's his gag?"
Vin's eyes widened, unaware that it had been Cavendish himself who had removed the gag the night before, and jumped to his feet. Cavendish, for his part, simply responded by yelling and charging at the gambler. In a flash, Vin had the Remington up and aimed at Cavendish's heart. The man fell like a ton of bricks. At almost the same instant, Vin felt the knife pierce his thigh where Simon had thrown it. He collapsed back against the tree. A second shot rang out, and Vin saw that Ezra had gotten Simon in the chest with his Colt. The third shot came from Cal, and Vin watched helplessly as Ezra slammed backwards into his tree, the Colt falling out of his hand. Vin fired on Cal, but didn't see if the shot connected. From somewhere, a rock hit his head and he blacked out.
Ezra didn't even think after he saw Cal fall from Vin's last shot and Malone desperately fling one of the rocks that sat around the cook fire at the tracker. Instantly, he engaged the mechanism that allowed the derringer to slip into his right hand and he fired, bringing Malone down with a shot to the heart. And it was all over.
Chris had spent the rest of the Thursday riding around and visiting the outlying ranches, part of the patrol route they'd been ignoring since yesterday. When he returned, he got himself a little dinner, and only peeked in the saloon. He saw the others in there playing poker at Ezra's table, so he moved on. His headache was almost blinding at this point, and he saw no shame in retiring early. Unfortunately, the alcohol still in his system kept him tossing and turning for a while before sleep actually came. The result was that it was already mid-morning before he crawled out. A thought nagged his brain that he was getting as bad as Ezra.
He stood out in the quiet street, listening to the townspeople bustle about on their morning errands. Luckily, Josiah had not started hammering yet. He rubbed his eyes fiercely, and considered the just opening saloon. Inez would already have been up for a while, and he could, if he wanted, go and get a small drink to settle his head. Licking his lips in anticipation, he started over. A cordial call from the jail interrupted his walk.
"Hey Chris!" JD called, his voice bubbly with unrestrained zeal, "come here! I want to show you something." Chris sighed, looking longingly at the saloon, then turned to join the young sheriff. JD was already inside, sitting at his desk, and he had two decks of cards in front of him. Uh oh, Chris thought.
"I've been practicing all morning, and I think I got these figured out. Can I try them on you? I already tried 'em on Buck and Josiah last night, but I kept messing up. I thought if I practiced on you, I could really impress Buck later by getting them right."
Chris looked sideways at JD, "Show Buck what exactly?"
"Oh! Gosh, I'm sorry, Chris. You see, Ezra's been teaching me all these card tricks…"he stopped at Chris's grimace, and quickly tried to explain. "Oh no, not gambling tricks. He's been teaching me magic tricks. You know, sleight of hand? It's the stuff he shows the kids. Can I try them on you? I really want to have these down before Ezra gets back. Please?"
In the back of his mind, Chris was itching to run from the jail and get away, but JD's huge puppy dog eyes were too powerful. Reminding himself that he really had nothing better to do, Chris nodded at the boy and sat down in the chair opposite the desk. JD fairly whooped with delight, and immediately started in.
Friday…noon…middle of nowhere
Ezra was only aware of two things as he plodded towards Four Corners with Vin over his shoulder: the trail in front of him blazed by the other two outlaws, and of putting one foot in front of the other along that trail. Contrary to what Chris, Vin and the others believed, Ezra was not wholly incapable of tracking people. Indeed, after watching Vin for the past year, Ezra found himself becoming more and more adept. He simply chose not to make this fact known for fear that the others would force him to use that knowledge. Why track when you can follow? But here, Ezra had no choice.
Had he known the term, Ezra would have described his current perspective as "tunnel vision." Nothing existed beyond what was in front of him. His hearing, his pain, the heat, all this was submerged beneath the need to move forward. Even his thoughts were dulled, focused only on perceiving Chaucer and Peso's hoof prints and noting their direction. Nothing else mattered.
Vin, meanwhile, was having a nightmare. Someone had thought it would be fun to stick him on top of the may pole in the town near where he grew up in Texas, with the tip of the pole pressing uncomfortably into his stomach. Ribbons were attached to his fingers and legs, and the children were spinning him around and pulling with all their might on his pained limbs. He was getting stretched out of control! He yelled at the children to stop, but they just kept laughing. His fingers were so swollen that they were huge, pulled out of proportion, and his legs, especially his right leg, were on fire. And throughout this, he still knew it was a dream. A dream. He had to wake up. He would die if he didn't wake up. "WAKE UP!" He screamed at his mind. Open your eyes….
Bit by bit, Vin regained consciousness. His dried and filth coated lids pulled back from his eyeballs, revealing tired red eyes. He realized that he was not on a maypole, but being carried on someone's pointy shoulder. His fingers were swollen, and his head throbbed with the blood that had rushed to it. His legs felt numb, his right leg in particular seemed almost disconnected from his body. What the hell had happened?
He thought about the leg. Wasn't there a knife? Yes, a knife thrown by the ex-army man called Simon. Simon…Cavenidish…Ezra! His memory came back in a flood, his last thoughts being that Ezra had been shot. He blinked, suddenly afraid. He stared at the feet below him, slowing making their way. They were nice boots, expensive. They looked like Ezra's boots. He hoped they were Ezra's boots. He licked his dry lips, and croaked out a weak "Ez?"
When no answer came, Vin's fears grew. He tried again.
"Ez?" Still no answer.
"Ez, can you hear me? Is this you? Ezra? Ezra!"
A slight hitch in the boots movement indicated he was finally heard. From far away a voice returned, "Welcome back, Mr. Tanner."
"Oh thank God! Ez, what happened? Where are we?"
"You were injured. I am taking you home." The response was dull, completely without the southerner's usual inflections. Vin thought about this, trying to make sense of it all.
"Why…couldn't we have stayed in the meadow? Waited for the others…"
Ezra's voice came out very quiet, and he took enormous breaths between every few words. Vin had to strain to hear him. "Can't guarantee they'd come." The gambler said. "My plan to escape failed, so couldn't know my plan for help to come would succeed. You were injured, couldn't risk staying there and having the other two outlaws come back. Plus, predators would be coming for the bodies. Too dangerous. And the bodies would spread disease. Had to get you away." He faltered in his steps, but quickly regained his momentum.
Vin shut his eyes. His world was spinning. He recognized Ezra's point, but right now all he could think of is how much he wanted a drink from that spring. He was also pretty sure he was going to vomit soon. He opened his eyes again. He had to get Ezra to stop before he died of thirst and dizziness.
"Ez, we have to stop." He said. Once again, no response came. "Ez?" Vin tried again. "Ezra, talk to me!" He would have yelled, but his chest felt very heavy, so he had to do with a mere raised voice. Ezra's steps faltered again.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"
"We have to stop. I need water."
Ezra slowed, then veered off the trail. Vin had reminded the gambler of how tired and thirsty he also felt, and all his other senses came into force with a painful vehemence. He stepped through the long grass until he found a small clearing. With tremendous care, he bent over and allowed Vin to slip off his shoulder. The tracker immediately fell to the ground, moaning about his leg. Ezra stayed on his feet, afraid to sit. He pulled one of the canteens from off his shoulder and handed it over. Then he placed shaking hands on his hips to scan the horizon for riders.
Vin was not aware of much beyond his need for the liquid. Nathan's voice in his head reminded him to be sparing, however, and he tried not to be too greedy. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he looked up at his partner. Ezra was not looking at him, his eyes focused somewhere else. The man didn't look hurt, which seemed inconsistent with what he remembered. He was sure he saw Ezra get hit….Abruptly, bile rose in this throat. He had just enough time to twist away from the gambler before he threw up.
Ezra looked back at Vin, unable to keep the worry from his face. God, this was all his fault. He had pushed Chris too far, and now they were out here in the middle of nowhere. Why wasn't he alone? Why did he have to drag Vin down with him?
Vin, for his part, felt surprisingly much better. Of course, the retching had not helped his bruised ribs, but it had cleared his head. He was no longer spinning. He took another tentative sip of the water and was pleased to note it seemed to be staying down. He tapped Ezra on the leg with the canteen to indicate he was done. When the gambler bent over to retrieve the water, his coat fell open and Vin gasped. Ezra's shirt was soaked with blood on the left side. He looked up into green eyes.
"Just a graze. Looks worse than it is."
"Ez, are you sure? That's a lot of blood…"
"Would I be able to carry you if I was really hurt?" came the reply. Ezra took a swig from the same canteen.
Vin pondered this. He recognized that this was a deflection, not an answer. He knew Ezra would be too stubborn to admit he couldn't get Vin home, and thought that probably the gambler was not telling the truth. He also realized that he could smell the blood on the gambler. He wouldn't be able to do that from this distance if it wasn't fresh.
"Ez, you can't carry me anymore. I'll stay hidden in this grass while you go get help. Just leave me…."
"There are some apples in the satchel I tied around your back, and some jerky. I suggest you eat some." Ezra had looked away again.
Vin couldn't help but get annoyed at this second attempt at distracting him. "Ezra…" he began menacingly.
"I have no qualms about knocking you out again, Vin." Ezra's statement was quiet, and unquestionable. Vin just sat there, staring up at Ezra's profile. Then he pulled the satchel around and found the apples. He thought of using a knife to cut one up, but he couldn't even look at a knife right now. He started eating slowly, pausing after a couple of bites to see if it would stay down. Satisfied, he took a few more bites the handed the rest up to Ezra. The gambler finished the fruit, and tossed the core. Then Ezra put his hands out to pull Vin back to his feet. Vin hesitated, but not for long. He let Ezra pull him up and throw him over his shoulder again. Vin could still feel the apple in his gullet.
Pain lanced down Ezra's left side, and he staggered a little. Vin said something, but he ignored him. Ezra started walking again, and slipped back into his tunnel vision. Unable to get a response from the gambler, Vin gave up trying to convince him to change his mind. It felt like he was talking to a brick wall. He thought about how ironic it was that, on the way here, he couldn't get Ezra to shut up. Now, all he waned was to hear the gambler's voice. Feeling defeated, the tracker allowed himself to fall asleep.
Friday afternoon…Four Corners
It was close to noon when Chris finally extricated himself from JD's clutches. The young sheriff had shown him no less than eight different tricks. The first few were actually quite clever, and JD did a good job. Then he started to mess up. He would insist each time as he reshuffled and prepared to do the trick over that he knew what went wrong, but once more the trick would elude him in practice. Finally, Chris's patience gave out, and, excusing himself to get some lunch, almost ran out the door. JD sighed in relief as he left. In truth, the boy couldn't believe he'd held on to the black-clad gunslinger for so long.
Chris opted for the hotel for lunch, deciding that solitude was needed at his moment. With a full meal on his bones, he felt decidedly better. Only the hotel's manager interrupting him and asking when he thought Mr. Standish would be returning soured his meal. Apparently Ezra had promised to pull some strings and get the manager some needed supplies before the weekly supply run on Monday, and the manager hadn't heard anything since. All Chris could do was shrug, and this caused a miniature tirade from the normally quiet hotelier. The tongue-lashing did little to ease Chris's mood about Ezra.
Thus, it was with a slightly bitter air that Chris finally breezed into the saloon. He needed a drink to settle his nerves, and nothing was going to prevent him from getting it. Nothing…except perhaps the shock of seeing Buck in a cravat.
The normally down to earth gunslinger was standing in front of one of the Saloon's mirrors admiring his image. He was resplendent in a three quarter length dark brown jacket, matching cotton trousers, a dark green vest, ruffled shirt and silk reddish-brown cravat. It was with the cravat that he was fiddling as Chris entered. The sight stopped the black-clad gunslinger in his tracks. Buck saw him in the reflection and turned around, a huge smile on his face.
"So what do you think?"
"You're not serious," Chris said, his lip curling in disdain.
Buck tried not to look offended, and smoothed down the jacket. "What? are you saying I don't look good?"
Chris didn't know how to answer, and replied by shaking his head. When he saw Buck's face fall, he moved to explain. "Oh, no, you look fine, Buck, its just….Where did you get that stuff?"
Buck seemed cheered by Chris's response, his smile broad. "Oh, Ezra gave them to me on my last birthday. He said that every man should have one fine set of clothing for special occasions. Well, since its been a few months and no real special occasions have arisen, and since its so quiet, I thought I should see how they looked. Plus, I think the girls are getting a little tired of the same old Buck." The last statement was said in a mock whisper.
"Yeah, but….Really, Buck, it just doesn't suit you."
Inez approached from behind and snaked a hand around Buck's torso. "Well, I think Senor Buck looks very handsome," she breathed huskily, moving to straighten his tie as she would Ezra's. Buck stared back at her dreamily, before throwing Chris a triumphant look.
Chris just blinked, amazed, and once again, his instinct was to get out of there. Things were just getting too weird. Without saying goodbye, he backed out of the saloon and looked around for an escape route. His eyes fixed on the church, and he suddenly felt a strong need to go and help Josiah.
Buck followed him out, a smile on his face. He grinned back at Inez, who acknowledged him with a smile and a slight nod as she returned to the bar. Thank goodness, he thought, now I can get out of these clothes! As he walked out onto the boardwalk, Buck put a finger beneath the ruffled shirt's collar, itching to rip the constricting fabric from his throat. A silken voice from behind broke him from his reverie.
"Why, Mr. Wilmington, is that you?"
Buck wheeled around to find himself staring into the huge brown eyes of Miss Alice Macklin. She was one of the few girls in town that Buck had not managed to charm into his loving embraces. Indeed, most of the time she remained aloof, her body posture telling him that he was not yet worthy her attentions. Clearly, Buck thought as she sidled up to him and placed a hand on his arm, something had changed.
"Such beautiful fabric, Mr. Wilmington," she cooed as she ran her fingers up his arm. "Well befitting a gentleman of your noble stature. Actually, I was wondering if such a busy man as yourself might have the time to go for a walk with me?" She tilted her head coyly, allowing strands of perfectly curled brown hair to swing around her face. Buck needed no further invitation, and within seconds, they were walking arm in arm down the street.
Chris made his way into the church warily. Something felt odd. Normally when one went to see Josiah, the ears were immediately assailed by sounds of sawing or hammering, or the nose assaulted by the harsh smell of fresh paint or wood stain. Today, though, the place was deathly quiet.
Chris wandered down the pews, looking in the shadows for movement. As he reached the nave, he inched forward to peek around the alter. He couldn't resist a slight huff as he found Josiah leaning lazily on the back of the alter, tossing cards into a hat. Upon hearing Chris, he looked up and smiled.
"Hello brother. To what do I owe the honor?"
"Last time I checked. You need something?"
"Yes. No. I mean, I came here to give you a hand, but from the looks of it…." He waved his hand loosely at the hat and cards. Josiah grinned, and sat up a bit straighter.
"Oh, I can always use you, Chris! I simply felt I deserved a day of rest. I realize that is normally reserved to Sundays, but it seemed like too nice a day to ignore the tranquility that has embraced our home. The sun is warm, the sky is clear…a perfect day to just laze around."
"Laze? Josiah, you hate laziness."
"Oh now, you know that is not true, brother Chris. I often sit with you and the others and have a drink in the saloon and play cards."
"Josiah, you know perfectly well that is not laziness. That's a release from hard work. No, sitting on the floor tossing cards into a hat like….Wait a second." Chris put his hand to his forehead. "I get it. JD's card tricks, Buck's clothes….I take it this is some sort of sick joke to get me back for sending Ezra out with Vin." He shook his head, sneering at the preacher. "Oh, very funny," he said sarcastically.
For his part, Josiah tried to look back with wide innocent eyes, but he hadn't Ezra and JD's knack for it. Chris turned and stalked from the Church, his anger at Ezra now turning into anger against his fellow lawmen. Think they can make a fool out of me? Well, I'll go spend time with the one person who I know would never imitate Ezra. And with that in mind, Chris strode purposefully towards the clinic.
Nathan was inside in his little office off the sickroom, his feet propped up on the pine desk. In his arms was a large text, and he was peering at it intently when Chris strode in.
"Nathan," Chris acknowledged, dropping into the chair opposite the desk.
"Chris?" Nathan asked, looking up questioningly. "Something wrong?"
"Nah, just thought I'd stop in. What is that, another medical textbook?"
"Ah, nope. It's a dictionary."
"You're reading a dictionary?" Chris couldn't keep the slight mocking tone from his voice. Who reads a dictionary?
"Well, not at first. You see, Ezra gave it to me. Its his. I needed it 'cause I was having problems understanding some of what they were saying in my textbooks. But, after a while I started noting how many words there are in here. I mean, there are hundreds of words you've never heard of! Like…" he trailed off and peered at the book. "Obs…strep...err…us. Obstreperous. Have you ever heard of such a funny sounding word? It means noisily defiant. Kind of like Buck, don't you think? And here's another: Ob-lo-key. Obloquy. That one means slanderous language. Just think, next time someone calls you names, they are using obloquy. And you can respond by…um…ah! By objurgating them. Neat, huh?" Nathan looked up, smiling, but the smile fell as he saw Chris's aghast expression.
"You're all crazy!" Chris spat.
"What?" Nathan asked, the innocent look coming more naturally to him than Josiah. But Chris didn't respond. Instead, he jumped out of the chair as if it were on fire and darted from the room. Nathan slammed the dictionary closed with panache (yet another lovely word he'd just looked up), and grinned heartily.
Outside Nathan's clinic, Chris sank down on the steps and sighed. He went over the day in his head and noted that it was already almost evening. How had the day disappeared so quickly? He decided he needed to get out of the town once more, and started to head towards the livery. On his way, he noticed a dust cloud bearing down on the town. Two riders moving at a racing pace. Even from this distance, he could see that it was a Peso and Chaucer, recognizing the horses from the way they looked and moved. He also saw a flash of red on the back of Chaucer. Leaning against the railing to the saloon, a smile crossed his face in relief. Maybe now life can get back to normal, he mused. His smile fell as he got a better look at the riders.
Matt was having the time of his life! The black horse he rode moved like the wind, and he couldn't resist challenging Davis to a race as they got within range of the town. His partner had agreed, and they were now neck and neck at a gallop. He edged his tired horse onward, roughly slamming his boots into the horse's hind, not caring that both Peso and Chaucer were exhausted and nearly spent. As he reached the limits, he whooped as he saw Peso was slightly ahead of the chestnut gelding, and claimed his success by pulling harshly on the reins and cheering. Davis just shrugged and told him he got lucky. Neither noticed how the horses barely crawled the last few hundred yards up to the saloon where the outlaws planned to spend the night, and neither man took more than a passing glance at the man in black who hung out front.
Matt jumped from Peso's back had threw the reins over the hitching post. "Hey cowboy," he said addressing the man he had seen there while he tied the reins, "any idea where I can trade…." He stopped. It's a natural reaction when someone has a gun in your face. Davis reacted by going for his own weapon, but the sound of a rifle being cocked changed his mind. He looked over at the saloon porch to see a rather disheveled looking tall gunslinger in wrinkled fancy clothes aiming a gun at his head.
"Where are they," Chris hissed.
Friday evening…a little over a day's ride from Four Corners (not quite the middle of nowhere)
Vin was having another nightmare (or was it "daymare" he wondered to the part of himself that was still lucid enough to know it was still day in reality). This time he was being dragged up the side of a ravine on his stomach, like a sheep stuck in a mud pit. As it was, he was staring down the ravine, being pulled up by his feet. But someone was holding on to him, trying to keep him from being pulled up. Looking down, he could see it was Ezra. The gambler was gripping his hands and tugging on them so hard that they felt like they were breaking. Turning his head in the other direction, he could see a large black dog above him, its jaws clamped on his right leg, pulling him upwards. He begged Ezra to just let him go, to let the dog have him, but Ezra was too stubborn. He could see it in those bright determined green eyes. Let me go, Ezra. Please, I want to go. But the man didn't answer, he just kept holding on. Soon, Vin was pulling Ezra up with him.
The feel of Ezra suddenly tripping brought Vin back, and his eyes snapped open. Somehow, Ezra managed to regain his footing before completely falling over, and he readjusted Vin on his shoulder.
The tracker looked at the still long grass around them, and tried to figure out if it had gotten darker. He wanted to look up at the sky, but that simple movement was denied him. All he could see was the ground and Ezra's boots. He could see that the step seemed slower now.
"Ez?" he said. This time the lack of response was expected. "Ezra, please talk to me. Can you even hear me? Ez, please." Vin shut his eyes at the silence that was returned. How could the gambler have become so shut off? He must really be hurting. Sucking in a ragged breath, Vin tried again, rallying himself to shout as loud as he could.
He felt himself jerked, as the whole of Ezra's body spasmed at the sudden noise. Vin almost cried out in relief at the sweet southern accent that drifted back to him.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"
"Ez, I need you to talk to me. Please. I keep falling asleep and I don't think I can handle that anymore. My ears are ringing from all the blood rushing to my head, and the silence is deafening. Please, I need to hear you talk."
For a second Vin wasn't sure Ezra heard him, then a small laugh reached his ears. "Do you realize, Mr. Tanner, that you just used a metaphor?"
"You said the silence is deafening."
"Well, whaddya know. Maybe I know what a metaphor is after all." He paused, then laughed lightly. "Must be innate. Still doesn't mean the landscape is delicious, though."
"No," agreed the disembodied voice.
"But maybe…how about…honest?"
"It's a start."
Vin waited for Ezra to continue, but the gambler wasn't taking the bait.
"How about," the tracker tried, "you quote me that poem you said you were writing on the way down here. The one in your head?" There was a long pause, and Vin was about to call Ezra's name again when the gambler replied.
"I have a better idea, Mr. Tanner. Why don't you try and compose one, and recite it to me."
Vin pursed his dry lips. He could feel a canteen pressing into his chest where it was pressed over Ezra's back, but he thought he could wait a little longer for water. Plus, he wanted to hear Ezra talk, not himself. He had a feeling that, if he started reciting some of his own stuff, Ezra would stop paying attention. He needed to keep the gambler alert. He sighed, and smiled at the ground.
"I'm not sure I can, Ez. Besides, you talk prettier than I do."
"Matter of opinion."
"What does that mean?" Another pause.
"I'm tired, Vin."
Vin swallowed, he could still smell the blood on Ezra. This was crazy, he had to get the gambler to stop. He considered shifting to force Ezra to drop him, but his muscles felt like lead weights. Still he had to try. He brought his arms up and tried to push himself off the gambler's back. Ezra cried out, and nearly fell. Then Vin felt Ezra grab his right leg, just above the knife wound.
"Do that again, "Ezra whispered, "and I will squeeze until you pass out. Got it?"
"Ez," Vin pleaded, "this is crazy. You can't carry me all the way home, not when you're hurt. Hell, I wouldn't even trust you to do it healthy!"
"Are you saying I can't do it?" came the hushed reply. The menace in the tone was heavy, as if acid dripped from each syllable.
"No, Ez. I don't think you can. It'll kill you first." There, Vin had said it. Ezra had to listen to him now. He waited, and was greeted by silence. Ezra didn't stop his plodding steps. After a while, Vin realized Ezra wasn't going to answer. He considered trying to force the gambler to stop again, but somehow knew Ezra would make good on his promise to knock Vin out. Damn.
"Ezra?" he called. Silence. Damn, Damn, Damn. Vin sighed and tried to be content to watch the ground move by slowly beneath him.
Matt was amazingly closed lipped about what had happened, despite being clearly terrified of the wraith-like Chris Larabee. Lucky for the rest of the seven, however, Davis had no qualms about betraying his employer. The normally silent man had sung like a canary, and, within an hour of the two outlaws arriving, the rest of the seven rode out into the darkening gloom.
Vin opened his eyes again for the third time, happy to note that, while he had slept, he hadn't dreamed. It occurred to him that this probably meant his head wound was no longer a problem. Of course, every time he tried to stretch his right thigh muscle, he was greeted by searing pain. He looked around him and noticed that his surroundings were definitely getting darker. It had to be getting close to night.
"Ez," he croaked. Ugh, his throat felt like sandpaper. "Ez, wake up. I need water. Ezra!" He paused, thinking he'd heard the gambler grunt. "Damn it, man, say something!" For about ten minutes, Vin waited. Finally, he was about to scream, when he felt Ezra change course.
The gambler headed off to the left side, and Vin felt the cooler air of a group of trees brush across his cheek. Slowly, the gambler wound his way through the small copse and carried the tracker to another low lying clearing. He started to lean forward to release the tracker from this shoulder when he collapsed. Vin rolled off in a heap, and quickly gathered himself together despite tingling limbs. He scrambled over to the gambler's side.
Ezra had fallen flat, but somehow through strength of will managed to pull himself up on his hands and knees. His eyes were open but unfocused as he stared at the dark dirt beneath his fingers. The arms holding him up were shaking.
"Ez, its okay. We can rest here. We'll camp for the night, okay? Then you can get back to stretching my stomach muscles in the morning."
Ezra nodded, and shifted himself backwards onto his knees so that he was sitting up straight. He pulled the canteens off from around his shoulders, and watched through half lidded eyes as Vin pulled off the satchel. They traded.
Vin brought the cool water to his lips, letting them soak up the moisture like a dry sponge. The he greedily drank several gulps before passing it back. Meanwhile Ezra slowly sifted through the satchel. He pulled out some cloth strips and handed them to Vin for the tracker to rewrap his leg.
"Would you like me to do your side as well?" Vin asked as he examined his thigh. The knife wound didn't look too bad, though it felt like it was five times bigger than it was. He was amazed at how small the incision actually was. Ezra merely nodded in response, and pulled off his jacket. Slowly, he unbuttoned his shirt, all his muscles screaming in protest. For a moment, everything went black. When he was awake again, he was lying on the ground and Vin was inspecting his wound.
"Just a graze, huh," the tracker chastised. "Damn it, Ez, its probably been bleeding on and off again all day, and I can tell its getting infected. We'll have to clean it again. Is there any alcohol in that bag?" This time Ezra shook his head, and the tracker sighed. "Damn. Well, I'll have to just use water and we'll hope for the best."
Vin tended the wounds quickly, and pressed new bandages fiercely to the gambler's side. For his part, Ezra barely felt it. His whole body was numb. He looked at Vin, and noted how far away the tracker's voice seemed. Almost as if someone had stuck cotton in his ears.
"There, I think I've gotten it to stop. You're one stubborn idiot, Standish." He smiled down at his friend, and was pleased to see Ezra smiling back. In the fading light, though, it was clear that Ezra's face was too pale, almost transparent, and it made him look almost ghoulish. The purple bruise on his jaw wasn't helping the picture. 'Course, Vin thought, touching his swollen eye, I probably don't look much better. But he felt strong, thanks to being carried all day. He shifted and tried to get to his feet. Ezra rose to stop him.
"No, no, don't worry. I think I can hobble around okay, and I'm not going to fall over from a concussion. My head seems to have cleared up. I'm going to go get some firewood. You just rest." He handed Ezra the canteen, then, slowly, he limped into the woods.
It took the tracker some time, but, by only bringing a few pieces at a time, he managed to gather enough to keep a small fire going for a while. As he put it together, he noted Ezra had fallen asleep, the canteen in his arms. It occurred to him that he hadn't heard Ezra speak this whole time, as if the gambler's voice had dripped away along with his blood. Vin laid the navy jacket over him, and sat up to watch the stars emerge. His worry subsided somewhat as he took in the bright vista. How he loved being able to look up and see the sky!
Saturday…a few hours past dawn
The next morning found Ezra blinking away exhaustion and trying to bring himself to move. Vin had fallen asleep next to him, using body heat to keep them both warm through the cold night, and was still clearly deep in slumber. Careful not to wake him, Ezra shifted sideways onto his right side and attempted to lever himself upwards. The combination of incredibly sore muscles, and the throbbing in his left side caused him to grunt, and stop for a moment. He glanced back at Vin, and was pleased to see no reaction. Eventually, Ezra was up and walking slowly around, trying to get the blood pumping in his veins. He swung his arms around in small circles, then immediately stopped as he felt the wounds on his left side tear. He wrapped an arm around his waist.
Vin rolled over and looked up, also having difficulty getting the cobwebs from his mind. His leg throbbed, and much as he tried to get himself upright, he found the leg simply wouldn't bend. It was stuck.
"Ez…" he moaned. Ezra turned around and grimaced, instantly understanding the problem. Vin's leg had stiffened. There was no way he could move without being carried. Vin, meanwhile, noticed that Ezra was still very pale. The circles under his eyes belied the fit condition that gambler was attempting to portray. He frowned.
"Ezra, why don't we stay here. Your plan was good, and they're probably already on their way. We have enough water to last us another day, and I think I could get us enough to eat for a while. If we watch the trail, we'll see them coming. At the very least, if only the kid and the ferret come back, we could use the element of surprise and steal a couple of horses."
"I am taking you home, Vin." Came the simple response. Vin smiled, happy to hear that Ezra had found his voice again.
"Maybe you can, but do we have to?"
Ezra looked around, his arm still gripping his side. He had no idea how far they'd come, or how far they had to go. But Vin couldn't move on his own, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could stay awake. If he stopped, he knew he would give up. Closing his eyes, he looked back at the tracker.
"I want to keep going."
"I need to keep going. If we don't, you may as well shoot me now."
"Stop being so damn melodramatic! We both need rest. Wait a day, and then we can try again."
Ezra hung his head, and stared at the ground. Vin sat up as best he could, and looked at his traitorous leg. The bandage was bloodied from all the movement he'd done the night before. It occurred to him that, like Ezra's wound, it could quickly become infected. Ezra saw what Vin was looking at and shook his head.
"We have to keep going. If we get sick, neither of us will be fit enough to do anything. And the water supply will run out. We can't afford the risk of hoping someone will find us."
Vin shut his eyes, and lay back down. "How about a compromise," he suggested. "We keep going until we find water. Then we stop."
Ezra looked at him, and nodded. "Fine."
"Your word, Ez." Vin looked back up at him. Ezra stared back, then nodded again.
"Fine, then let's get ready." Vin pulled out the last apple and tossed it to his partner. Then he fished out a strip of beef jerky and started chewing.
About ten minutes later, they were back on the trail, Vin once more over Ezra's shoulder. Silence filled the air for a while, then, not being able to stand it any longer, Vin started talking. He began with a poem he had made up the night before about the night sky. It was short, but sweet, and Ezra couldn't help but smile. Then Vin told him some limericks he'd heard from some Irishmen in a bar, and was rewarded by weak laughs from the con artist. Then things quieted a little, and Vin started thinking about how they had gotten into this mess in the first place.
"Why do you go out of your way to get Chris mad at you?"
"He's an easy target."
"Would you believe me if I told you I enjoy getting him angry?"
Ezra sighed, and looked up at the horizon. His vision blurred a little, and he shook his head to clear it. Then he returned to looking at the ground beneath his feet. Vin nudged him, still wanting an answer.
"Well, let's just say…I'd rather have Chris hitting me than hitting the bottle." He said this so quietly, he wasn't sure Vin heard. Then the tracker's voice floated back to him.
"God, Ez, you really are crazy."
"I'll deny everything."
"I know. How long do you think you can keep it up before he kills you?"
"Forever. So long as I have the rest of you to protect me." Vin smiled, and patted Ezra's calf with one of his hands.
"About the nickname Ez…."
"Oh come on, Ezra…." Vin began in an irritated tone.
"I like it."
Vin suddenly laughed at this, his shuddering frame causing Ezra to lose his grip a little. He shifted the tracker higher up on his shoulder, and was repaid with a grunt. Then he heard some mumbling about "watch the ribs, damn it." Ezra grinned despite himself.
"Hey Ez," Vin called, "you know any real poems? By real poets, I mean?"
"You're a real poet, Vin."
The tracker blushed, an odd effect considering his face was already flushed from being hung upside down. "Published poets, I mean."
"Can you recite them?"
Ezra swallowed, and tried to recall the one his mother had taught him as a means to sweet talk a female mark. It rose to his mind, and he focused on the words. It was by his favorite poet, Wordsworth, and his eyes took on a dreamy as he spoke….
"It was a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with Adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility…."
Suddenly, Ezra started coughing, and he was forced to stop. He held tightly onto Vin as he calmed his breathing, until he was sure he wouldn't fall.
"Want to put me down?" Vin asked.
"No." The reply was hoarse, and tired sounding. Silence descended for a while, and, eventually, Ezra started walking again. Vin tried again.
"That was pretty Ez. Couple of them metaphors in there, huh."
The gambler responded by grunting, afraid to trust his voice again. Realizing this, Vin started making up poems off the top of his head to keep the gambler amused. Eventually, however, he fell back asleep.
Chris had only let them rest very briefly in the night, just enough time to water down the horses and get a few hours of sleep. Then they were up before the sun graced the sky and following the trail.
Ezra was stumbling. He could feel the world spinning around him, and he knew that, despite it all, he was going to fail. They'd been moving now for hours, with the sun sitting somewhere about late morning, and they were still wading through that same long grass. Vin would die because he couldn't walk the few extra miles to get him home. God, but he had tried.
He knew Vin had fallen asleep again, and had expected it. He was sure there was a fever in the young man's body, just as he was sure there was one in his. Just keep moving, he said, one foot in front of the other. Nothing else matters. Just keep moving.
His legs felt like lead weights, and his side burned with such intensity he kept expecting to see flames, or at the very least, to smell smoke. Suddenly, he felt the earth trembling. He looked up, blinking tears to try and make out what was happening.
There, an enormous dust cloud on the horizon. God, he had to hide! He had to get them away. No, it was too late. Gently, he lowered Vin to the ground and pulled his guns. How many riders? Two? No, more. Five. Five! He saw the black horse and the black rider in front, and dropped the weapons. He raised his hand to wave. Then he fainted, his last thought being that he hoped he didn't fall on Vin.
Chris saw them first, and spurred the horse faster. He saw Ezra drop Vin to the ground and pull his guns. Then, just as quickly the man dropped them. He knew. Chris would have jumped for joy, but JD beat him to it. The boy was screaming hurrahs as they bore down on the gambler. Together, they saw Ezra wave, then collapse.
Seconds later, they were at their friends' sides. Nathan was inspecting them, and ordering JD to get out the medical supplies. He also ordered Buck to start a fire and get water boiling. The tall gunslinger pulled the small collection of dried wood he'd attached to one of the spare horses and quickly got flames going.
Meanwhile, Chris was looking down at Vin, a hand on his shoulder, and Josiah knelt with a hand on Ezra's forehead. They both tried to ignore Nathan's cursing as he inspected the wounds, and started muttering about fool headed men who thought they could carry someone with a bullet wound in their side. At one point, Vin woke up and saw Chris staring down at him. The smile on the younger man's face was priceless.
"I knew his plan would work," the tracker muttered. Then, more seriously, he grabbed Chris's arm. "How's Ez?"
The black clad gunslinger looked over to where Nathan was cleaning Ezra's side. The gambler was pale and not moving. Nathan looked up at Chris and shrugged. Vin knew instantly the answer when he saw Chris's expression falter.
"Damn, damn, damn." He mumbled, letting go.
Buck and JD came to sit by Vin, while Chris moved across to Ezra. Nathan was holding compresses that he'd soaked in milk and linseed oil to the wounds, while Josiah simply sat with Ezra's head in his lap, brushing his hand through the gambler's hair. Both looked up as their leader knelt down, before returning to their ministrations.
Chris leant over, and brought his lips close to Ezra's ear. "Don't you die, you bastard. The rest of this lot make really poor substitutes." He looked up and caught Josiah in the eye, who was the only one to hear what Chris had said. The preacher had the presence of mind to look sheepish. Chris stood to tower over his men as the others continued to care for their fallen, and nodded.
"We'll get you home, boys. Just hold on."
About a week later, both Vin and Ezra were hanging out in front of Nathan's clinic, soaking up the rays of the sun. Their faces were upturned, and their eyes closed as they let the summer heat play across their cheeks.
Chris wandered up, a slight limp in his walk, and threw a dust covered saddle at Ezra's feet. Ezra looked astonished, and an expression of pure innocence filled his face. The gunslinger was covered from head to foot in dirt and dust, and the scowl on his face was spine-chilling.
"Why, Mr. Larabee, this is an unexpected pleasure. I thought you had departed with the ever charming Buck and JD to convey our prized prisoners to their incarceration?"
"I had Ezra. The cinch on my new saddle broke almost immediately I got on."
"Oh, I really am sorry, Mr. Larabee. But I assure you, when I was given that saddle, I was assured in good faith that it was in mint condition."
"I should have known something was wrong when you sold it to me, you conniving, low down…"
"Mr. Larabee! You know I would never intentionally desire to see you fall off your beautiful stallion!"
"I want my money back."
Ezra cocked his head to one side, and actually looked puzzled by this statement. "I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee, but I believe I must have misheard you just then. I do not believe that I ever guaranteed that particular piece of merchandise, and, frankly, I am afraid a refund would be unworkable."
"Ezra…" Chris's voice rose in pitch as his rage came to a boil.
"Please, Mr. Larabee. You know my rules when it comes to business. No refunds." Ezra crossed his arms and looked to Vin for confirmation. Shrugging, the tracker nodded at Chris, though he did look apologetic. The black-clad gunslinger took a step forward, then seemed to gather himself.
"Damn it, Ezra, if you weren't hurt…." Chris gripped his hands into fists, then turned and stalked away, trying to remain as dignified as possible as dust fell off of him in great waves. Vin chuckled, and looked over at the con man, who once more had his face turned to the sun. A beatific smile played across Ezra's features. Vin just shook his head.
"You really are crazy, Ez, you know that?"
"Why, Mr. Tanner…" Ezra began, his voice pleading innocence.
"But it's a delicious kind of crazy."
Ezra burst into laughter, and Vin joined him. Their mirth echoed down the street until it fell on the ears of their leader as he strode away. Chris lowered his hat so that no one would see the unlikely smile that suddenly played across the older man's face.