ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS
Ezra became painfully aware how foolish he had been to attempt escape when his balance, strength and sense of direction left him groping the crutch beneath his right arm. He had known before he left he wasn't fit to walk on his own, but he desperately needed to leave the confines of his room and he would be damned if he was going to allow Chris or Buck or any of the others to carry him in public. It was bad enough he had been forced to permit their assistance in private during the weeks of his recovery, when he was too weak from his injuries and too dizzy from Nathan's concoctions to resist, but he simply couldn't stand the humiliation any longer. He had to get out and feigning sleep when Jackson left to attend an injured patron at the saloon downstairs availed him the perfect opportunity. He had rolled himself off the bed, snatched the crutch leaning against the chair and staggered clumsily to his feet. Once he had checked the hallway for anyone who might try to stop him, he wobbled painfully down the back stairs, around the building and onto the boardwalk. He had no idea where he was going; it was just enough that he was out of his room… at least in the beginning.
He had only managed to plod his way twenty feet from the saloon when it struck him how stupid he had been for trying such a stunt. It wasn't like he hadn't been allowed to go outside before now but it was the first time he had tried to make the journey on his own. He looked around as best he could and noticed there was no place to sit down, no place to catch his breath before he passed out, so now he was left to grip, or rather cling to his crutch. His feet, heavily wrapped in thick bandages, were extremely uncomfortable and his one good arm was trembling so badly he was in danger of shaking himself right off his prop. He dropped his forehead to the back of his hand and prayed for strength. The prayer lasted all of ten seconds before he twisted sideways and fell.
A collective gasp could be heard from the small gathering of women at the next doorway just as he hit the ground. Not for the first time in the past few weeks, he felt like crying, but when he heard the familiar tone of Chris Larabee's voice he stifled the urge and stared blindly at the floor. "Ezra, what the hell are you doing?"
"Get me out of here," he replied, his voice strained to its limits.
The gunfighter pushed the wooden crutch aside and reached an arm around his fallen friend. "Come on, I've got ya."
Ezra's humiliation took on a whole new meaning as he was manhandled off the sidewalk and onto a chair discovered by one of the ladies who had witnessed his collapse. Feeling the all too familiar sensation of vertigo, he teetered off balance a second time. Chris made a grab for him but when he took the flailing hand in his own it was yanked away with a yelp. The lawman didn't react to the retreat. He simply leaned against the sidewalk rail and motioned for the onlookers to leave.
Ezra spoke near a whisper once he had gathered himself. "Thank you."
He stole a glance at Chris' profile as the blond watched the street. "Aren't you going to offer some sort of reprimand for my leaving unaccompanied?"
"I figure you've probably already done that." The blond finally turned around. "And I got a good idea how ya feel."
An image of Chris lying on a cot passed quickly through Ezra's mind as a dull ache began to form behind his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, I thought I saw Nathan fussing over you… I think it was at the clinic."
"You remember that?"
"Not really remember. It's more like I just know. I keep seeing things in my head I don't really understand. But you were hurt, weren't you."
"By the Nichols?"
Chris' stomach tightened when he remembered Hank aiming at him. "Because of the Nichols."
Ezra cocked his head to the side at the gunfighter's strange tone. "I get the feeling there's a lot more to what happened than I've been told. What are you hiding from me?"
"There's nothing else needs tellin' right now. The Nichols chased someone I know to Four Corners trying to kill him, I hid him out at my cabin and when they asked where I had gone you sent them in the wrong direction. I was able to get him on his way to Mexico but I didn't make it back to town in time to stop them from grabbin' you."
"So my deception was cause enough for them to do this…" the Southern voice trailed off as he looked down at himself.
"I'm sorry, Ezra."
"It was likely my own fault."
"How d'ya figure?" Chris asked, shocked by the statement.
"For one thing, I should have been able to come up with a more creative ploy than sending them in the wrong direction. And secondly, if I had kept my guard up they never would have had the opportunity to 'grab' me."
"Don't be takin' this on yourself. You did a good thing."
Ezra ran a hand across his face. "At least you saved your friend, and the Nichols have been stopped."
The gunfighter felt a pang of sorrow when he thought of is father-in-law, but there was no way he was going to reveal to Ezra that despite all their efforts they hadn't been able to save Hank. He watched the gambler pale as he rubbed a hand to his temple. "Headache still bad?"
"Sound familiar, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris turned to see Joseph Hobson at his back.
"Maddie tells me you kept insisting the same thing when she was helping take care of you."
Ezra looked up to see the lawman's face turn red.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Hobson?" Chris quickly asked.
When the shopkeeper realized he had spoken a little too plainly, he clamped his mouth shut and stared at his feet. After the longest minute of his life, he finally straightened his shoulders and raised his head. He stood with his hands behind his back and stared at Ezra so long Chris had to break the silence. "It's alright, Mr. Hobson. Is there something you needed?"
"I… I came over for two reasons actually. I wanted to deliver a package that came for you, Mr. Larabee, and I sort of wanted to speak to Mr. Standish." He handed Chris a small flat box wrapped in paper and watched the gunfighter tuck it inside his jacket.
"Me?" Ezra asked.
"I don't know how to begin… after all you've been through." He fidgeted nervously.
"You can say anything you like, Mr. Hobson, since it appears I am in your debt."
"Mine? Oh no. It's the other way round."
Standish's eyes grew wider.
"You see, I want to talk to you about the day the Nichols… well, the day the Nichols abducted you."
Chris didn't like where this conversation was going. "I'm sorry, Mister Hobson, but Ezra has no memory of the Nichols. He only knows what little we've been able to explain to him. You understand."
A look of astonishment crossed the older man's face but he remained polite and unobtrusive. Madeline had told him about the man's memory loss, but Ezra had improved so much physically over the past weeks he had hoped his mind might have healed as well. Not that he wanted him to remember 'everything' he had been through, but there were some moments which were too important to forget. "Well yes, of course, it's just…"
"Yes?" Ezra prodded.
"Forgive me, I don't wish to remind you of the events of that horrible day, it's just I feel I need to apologize for what I did. I'm very ashamed of my behavior and…"
"Mr. Hobson, from what I understand it is I who should be thanking you. You put yourself at risk by smuggling one of my guns to Chris and the others."
The store clerk stammered. "I… I didn't really do anything."
Chris raised himself off the boardwalk railing and moved to stand beside Joseph. "You told us in the only way you could where the Nichols were hiding."
"I didn't do enough to make up for helping those killers in the first place. I hate what I did, and I'll have to live with the shame, but…" he broke off and his shoulders slumped.
"But you couldn't allow them to harm your wife," Ezra finished. "You did what you had to."
"As you did?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"What you did at the General Store, before the Nichols came after you."
Ezra blinked, a puzzled look on his face.
"Mr. Standish, you saved my life. A couple of those boys came into my place, asking where Mr. Larabee had taken that other man. They wanted to know how to find him. I hate to admit it, but as much as I didn't want to tell them, I know in my heart I would have if you hadn't come along. I would have been killed if you hadn't looked in the window and come in. You could have walked on by, as I noticed several other folks did, but you didn't. You pushed your way in, put yourself between them and me and persuaded them to leave; I won't be forgetting that."
Ezra glanced at Chris for an instant before responding. "I assure you, if I did do something resembling an act of heroism I was just doing what my job requires of me."
Hobson shook his head. "Trust me, you did. And even if that's true, you're still a hell of a man to do your job. As I said, more than one person passed by my window, saw what was happening and hurried on out of harm's way. I saw you the second you realized what was going on; you didn't hesitate to help me."
The gambler grew uneasy with the attention, and the crooked grin on Chris' face did little to alleviate his discomfort. He leaned forward in his chair and tried to scoot enough to reach the crutch the gunfighter had propped against the wall. "Well now, my shining moment as a hero and I have no memory of the deed. I'm disappointed," he said flippantly as he struggled to regain his feet. The chair slid away suddenly causing him to wobble uncontrollably onto the more painful of his two feet. He tried to use his arms for balance but since one was bound to his side, he overcompensated and nearly toppled to the sidewalk. In an instant, hands were on him, lifting up and into the chair he'd just vacated.
"You okay?" Chris asked, kneeling in front of him.
Standish squeezed his eyes shut and tried to control the pain running rampant through his body. He was sick of this feeling, fed up with his inability to control his own movements and humiliated by his glaring displays of weakness. But there was little he could do except bow his head and suck up the embarrassment he felt.
Hobson, who upon much observation of the gambler when he had been allowed outside, had a sneaking suspicion how Ezra was feeling. It didn't take a doctor to understand the man's frustration. In fact it was that very observation two days earlier which had brought him to this moment with an idea of how he might help.
" 'm okay," Ezra slurred to Chris.
"Should I get Nathan?" the gunfighter asked, realizing it was taking his friend a long to time to regain his composure.
His eyes flew open. "No!"
"No, please, I just need a moment."
"You've pushed too hard."
"I simply stood… too quickly. It'll pass."
Chris looked doubtful, but truly did understand. Since the gambler had been rescued a second time from the Nichols family, he'd been fed a steady diet of pain medications and mild sedatives. One was for the constant hurt and ache; the other was for the reoccurring nightmares continuously plaguing his sleep. He squeezed Ezra's arm and nodded.
It took another a few minutes for the shaking to stop, but Ezra's body finally gave out and dropped deeper into the chair. "I apologize."
"For inconveniencing you gentlemen. I was a fool to leave on my own. I'm sure you both have better things to do than watch over the likes of me." He turned his face away when he realized he was drawing too much attention to himself.
"Hey, I've been where you are; I know how it feels to be pinned down. Besides, I've been pretty bored lately and I needed somethin' to do."
"So I'm you're idea of something to do?"
Ezra noticed Hobson still standing over him. "I appreciate your kind words to me earlier, sir, but please do not feel obliged. Even though I have no memory of the event you spoke of, I am very grateful to know I was able to help."
"Your helping me is not something I'm soon to forget. But it's cost you so much – you're still not on your feet…" he said, his hands once again behind his back.
The Southerner glanced at the two large bundles of bandages that had replaced his boots. Albeit one foot was healing nicely, the other had a long way to go to be useful. "Sadly, you are correct."
"Well, that's another reason I wanted to speak with you. You see, I've been noticing the trouble you've been having using that crutch."
One of Ezra's eyebrows went up. Hobson had been noticing him? Oh Lord, he had made a spectacle of himself.
The shopkeeper saw the look on the gambler's face and quickly began again. "Oh, please, Mr. Standish, I didn't mean to imply anything, it's just I've become aware how hard it is for you to get around what with both feet bandaged and your arm tied down. Using a crutch must be near impossible."
Ezra cleared his throat and looked again to Chris for help. "I appreciate your concern. It has been difficult to maneuver using a crutch, but at least it allows me to move around."
"I think I may have a solution." Joseph straightened and slowly revealed why he'd kept his hands out of sight. He was hiding a walking stick, a very stylish and beautifully crafted walking stick.
Ezra gawked at the slender object.
"I was wondering if you'd like to try using this cane. I thought it would be easier to use than the crutch."
The gambler was dumbfounded. The cane was made of the loveliest wood he'd ever seen, mahogany if he wasn't mistaken, and its head was a broad knob of silver, heavily ornamented on the sides and smooth across the top. It was nothing less than exquisite.
Ezra stared in silence.
"Oh no, I've offended you."
"Hold on, Mr. Hobson, just give him a second," Chris said, seeing the look in his friend's eyes. "Ezra has an overly keen appreciation of fine craftsmanship."
"I don't understand."
"Ezra, say thank you to the nice man," the gunslinger said.
"W-what? Oh, sorry, please forgive my manners. It's just I've never seen such a beautiful cane."
"You like it then? You're not upset by my offering it to you?"
"For noticing your, uh, temporary infirmity."
Oh God Chris thought, now Hobson was sounding like Ezra.
"Not at all, but I'm afraid I wouldn't want to be responsible for it. I appreciate your generous loan but it's too much," Ezra replied, reluctantly pushing the stick away.
"It isn't too much, not by a long stretch. And it's not a loan, it's a gift, and I truly wish you would accept it." The general store clerk took up Chris' previous position kneeling in front of Ezra. "You helped me, Mr. Standish, when I desperately needed it. Now I would like to help you." Standish eyed the beautiful cane as it was laid across his knees. "I only hope you don't think I'm trying to buy your forgiveness. It will take a lot more than a pretty stick to make up for what I did."
"I told you before; there is nothing to forgive." Ezra touched the wood, smoothing his fingers over its fine grain. It was obvious he liked the stick, but he was more impressed with what Hobson was really trying to give him – a sense of independence. And it didn't hurt that the means of independence was as suited to Ezra's style as his fine brocade vest or his elegantly designed jacket.
Hobson, still kneeling, looked into the battered but now brighter face and stated firmly. "You will accept it, won't you."
Standish took the walking stick, slipped his hand over the handle and stood it on the floor between his knees. "I..."
Chris could hardly believe his ears; Ezra Standish was at a loss for words.
Joseph smiled and added, "It could be just the thing to aid in your next escape attempt."
The gambler pulled back in surprise.
"I saw you slip out of the saloon."
Ezra laughed and tilted the cane until it tapped the clerk on the chest. "Excellent point, Mr. Hobson. I appreciate your generosity."
"You're welcome. I hope it helps you the way I think it should." An understanding passed between the two, and Hobson backed away.
Chris saw a change in Ezra that amazed him. He looked more at ease than before, less… damaged. That such a simple act as someone giving him a gift could brighten his spirits so, was totally unexpected, especially when the gift came from someone he hardly knew. Then again, maybe being appreciated by the people he served in this town was exactly what Ezra needed. There were times when even he felt taken for granted so it was good to see someone come forward and say thank you.
Despite the raising of his spirits however, Chris could see how tired Ezra had become. It wasn't likely he'd be able to make it back to his room under his own steam now, even with the aid of the new walking stick, but he would get him there if he had to pick him up and carry him kicking and screaming. "You ready to head back, Ezra?"
The Southerner held his new possession proudly and smiled. "Yes, I think I am." And with the leverage the cane provided he was able to raise himself smoothly off the chair.
"Good job, now let's get your most distinguished self back to bed before an angry healer comes lookin' to put you there himself." He turned the gambler, but not before Ezra shuffled the cane to pin it beneath his sling and offer his free hand to Joseph.
The shopkeeper beamed.
"We are even now, sir. We have saved each other."
Hobson shook his hand and returned to his store a happy man. Chris picked up the forgotten crutch and ushered Ezra towards the saloon. Just before they reached the end of the boardwalk he saw a frown replace the Southerner's smile. He also noticed a fine sheen of perspiration glisten on his face and a less than subtle tremor building in his arms and legs. "Ezra, all you have to do is say the word."
"No," he responded sharply. "Please. Don't even think it. I can make it on my own."
Larabee placed a hand discreetly beneath his elbow despite his protests, and wasn't surprised in the least when Ezra leaned into him. "It's alright, just take a breather."
"Chris," Vin called from the street, "wait up."
"Oh no," Standish groaned.
"Don't worry, he can help get you upstairs."
"But I don't want…"
"Hey, Ezra, how're ya doin'?" Tanner asked before he leaned down to take a good look at the gambler's grimacing face. "You don't look so good there, pard."
He groaned again. "Chris."
The gunfighter grinned and explained to Vin, "He's trying to make it back without anyone noticin'."
"We can do that," Tanner replied. He put a hand beneath the tail of Ezra's coat and took a firm hold on the waistband of his pants. He then leaned inconspicuously against him to give him support. "Chris, you just keep that hand on his arm there and we'll have him outta sight in no time."
Vin was true to his word. Ezra was moved quickly to his room without wrecking his self-esteem or his sense of decorum. Chris placed the discarded crutch behind the door and helped move the exhausted man to his bed. He pulled the cane from his white-knuckle grip, removed his jacket and laid him back as Vin raised his bandaged feet. Ezra was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
"I reckon he's done himself in for the night," Vin said.
"You could be right but why don't you head downstairs and grab us a couple o' beers. We'll keep him company just in case." The tracker moved to the door. "Oh and Vin, let's not tell Nathan about Ezra's trip outside."
Tanner nodded and left, leaving the gunfighter to the quiet of Ezra's room. It was almost too quiet considering everything that had happened since the arrival of his father-in-law, but it was something he felt he could get used to. The 'noise' that had filled his head in the past weeks was something he realized had been there to some degree since Sarah and Adam had died. It was a rush of sound he used to distract himself, to keep himself from remembering clearly the heartache he felt at being left alone. Seeing Hank again reminded him he needed to remember… not the pain or the loss, but the sound of Sarah's voice and the echo of Adam's laughter. Those two things had very nearly faded from his mind and he desperately wanted them back.
He settled himself on the bed across the room from Ezra's and listened to the gambler snore. Maybe this time he would sleep through the night, he hoped anyway. He removed his jacket and tossed it to the foot of the bed. When he heard a thump, he remembered the package Hobson had given him earlier. He pulled it out of his pocket and noticed there were no markings on the outside of the parcel to indicate who had sent it, just his name in care of the General Store in Four Corners. He snapped the cord, removed the brown paper and a small wooden box fell into his lap. When he pulled the lid and saw its contents, he quickly got to his feet, turned his back to Ezra and growled "What the hell!" He couldn't believe it; it wasn't possible. How had it survived? And who would send such a thing to him now? Why? He gawked at the package until he heard someone at the door. When he saw the knob turn, he drew the gun from his holster and took a defensive position in front of Ezra.
The door opened smoothly to reveal Vin holding two beers in one hand and a third in the other. "Hey, I thought Ezra could use a drink if he wa…" He saw Chris aiming a gun at him. "Whoa, pard, it's me!"
The gunfighter held the weapon up a second longer than he needed to. "Damn it, Vin."
"Who'd ya think it was?" Tanner put the glasses down.
Chris holstered his gun and stormed towards the door. "The son of a bitch who sent this," he replied as he shoved the box at the tracker and made to leave.
"Hold on, where the hell are ya goin'?"
"To see a man about a package."
"Just stay here and keep an eye on Ezra. Nobody gets in here you don't know, got it?"
"Chris, what are you…"
"Got it?" he asked through clenched teeth. "Nobody gets near him."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of him, just tell me…" but before he could finish, Chris was gone.
Vin fumbled with what his friend had handed over. "What's got in to you, Chris?" He dipped his fingers into the box, removed what was inside and held it up to the light. "Damn," he said with a grimace and threw it onto the dresser in disgust. He had no idea what it meant, but he knew Chris Larabee and if he was worried for Ezra's safety, then he'd do exactly as he'd been told.
He pulled the chair between Ezra and the door and listened to the mumbled beginnings of yet another of the gambler's nightmares. He knew Ezra couldn't remember what had happened with the Nichols, at least while he was awake, but his dreams were alive with what they had done to him. That a man should suffer so much his mind couldn't take it wasn't completely unfamiliar to the tracker, but that it should happen to someone he called friend was unacceptable. He reached around and gently patted Ezra's knee. "Take it easy, pard. I got your back." He stared at the door, sparing the dresser only the briefest glance even though the thing that lay atop it loomed like a beacon from hell.
A beacon in the form of a woman's lace handkerchief…
… wrinkled with use and stiffened with dried blood.
A/N: Well it's been a long ride, but I hope it's been worth it for all those folks who have hung in there with me. I know I've enjoyed it -- the story and the new friends I've made because of it. Now I'm off to start something new.... watch for me in 2009! Happy New Year! Jordan