A/N: Well, now that it's ficathon day over at the Mag7 community on livejournal, I can officially post this! This was written for quietcontrary, who requested an OW fic with a sick!Ezra saving the day.
Disclaimer: Not mine. Yet again. Such is life, and I'm long used to it.
"Long day, señor?"
Vin flicked his tired eyes up as Inez placed a plate of enchiladas and a glass of beer down in front of him. The Mexican barmaid's dark eyes were probing, and Vin managed to gather enough energy to give her a small smile. "More like a long week, ma'am."
Inez's lips turned down in a slight frown. "Yes. It will be nice to have everyone back safely in town."
Vin tugged his hat. "Amen ta that," he drawled, picking up his fork.
JD paced back and forth, glancing up every time he came to the end of his short path in front of the jail. He peered out into the gloomy rainfall, eyes straining to discern any movement beyond the borders of town.
"Ya keep walkin' like that an' you're gonna put a hole in them boards, kid."
"Whatever, Buck," JD shot back at the ladies' man, keeping his eyes focused on the far edge of town before whirling around to pace back and stare intently in the opposite direction.
Buck sighed, pushing off from the wall and striding towards the young sheriff. "JD, they're fine."
"They're late," JD snapped back, striding past Buck to look the other way again.
"You're starting to sound like Chris."
JD scoffed and rolled his eyes as he walked past, but Buck saw the faintest hint of a smile pulling at his lips as he strode by. "I wouldn't have ta sound like Chris if he was here."
Buck sighed again, pulling JD's eyes away from the street. He paused when he saw the somber expression in the older man's eyes as Buck stared down the street, and he swallowed. "Buck?"
Buck blinked and looked JD in the face. "I'm sure they're fine, JD. Chris and Nate had that wagon – it's probably slowing them down by gettin' caught in the mud. And Ez ain't even leavin' until Monday. It'll be at least three days after that before he gets here – ya know how he is."
JD chewed his lip as he folded his arms and stared out at the street, his gaze locked on the point where he had last seen the red-coated gambler nearly a week ago as he left town with a family of settlers. He turned to look where Nathan and Chris had left with the wagon of goods for the Seminole villagers four days ago. "Yeah, maybe," he said finally.
Buck clapped JD on the shoulder. "Come on, kid. Let's head over to the saloon and get somethin' to eat. I think I saw Vin head in there a bit ago."
"Ya think Josiah's gonna be alright out on patrol?" JD asked as he allowed himself to be steered towards the Standish Tavern.
Buck chuckled. "I don't think Josiah's gonna notice the rain. Man's got the patience of Job when it comes to things like this."
"Howdy, boys," Vin greeted as JD and Buck trudged in through the batwing doors.
"Hey, Vin. Any trouble out there?" JD asked as they settled into chairs next to the tracker, who shook his head. JD took his bowler off his head and shook it, flinging droplets of water everywhere. He grinned sheepishly and jammed his hat back on his head when Inez cleared her throat behind him. The barmaid shook her head and set her load of plates and mugs in front of the pair.
"Darlin', ya read my mind," Buck declared with a grin as he sniffed at the enchiladas and beans.
Inez rolled her eyes and tipped his hat forward. "That would be difficult, señor, as there is nothing to read."
JD snorted, spraying his plate with milk as he started choking. Vin grinned as he thumped the young lawman on the back to try and ease his coughing. Buck just stared, mouth gaping, as Inez sauntered back to the bar.
"She got ya good, pard," Vin drawled over JD's hacking laughter.
Buck finally shut his mouth and shook his head as he grabbed his fork. He grinned at his friends. "I'm tellin' ya, it's only a matter of time."
Vin and JD both rolled their eyes. "Ya mean before she fills ya with buckshot?" JD asked, thumping his chest. He ducked forward and grabbed his hat as Buck swung a hand at him.
Gotta warn 'em.
"Lord, you do know how to try a man's endurance," Josiah mumbled under his breath as he pulled the brim of his hat lower over his eyes. He nudged Cuervo's sides to urge the horse forward through the mud and the rain. The steady drizzle had been going on for the past few days, leaving the streets and roads muddy and the townspeople irritable. The rain wasn't heavy enough to soak through clothing right away, but it gradually made everything damp and miserable.
It also made it difficult to see too far ahead, Sanchez noted as he stared over the plain. Visibility had been reduced by about half, making it difficult to see if trouble was heading towards town.
Josiah wiped the water from his face with a big hand. "The Lord created both the sun and the rain. Water helps the plants of the earth grow. It nourishes the creatures and creates new life," he said quietly, reaching forward to lightly rub Cuervo's neck. He shook his hand to get the water and horsehair off. "It also makes man and horse right miserable."
His gaze shot up as Cuervo snorted softly. "What is it?" the preacher murmured softly as Cuervo's ears swiveled forward. Josiah peered into the rain as he urged Cuervo into a slow trot. Gradually he could see a dark shadow emerging through the gloom. When a familiar frustrated voice echoed across the distance, he chuckled and grinned. "Cuervo, my friend, I do believe we've discovered some lost sheep," he declared as the horse cantered towards the bulky unmoving shape.
"Fall upon a spot of trouble, brothers?"
"Josiah!" Nathan exclaimed, standing straight. The preacher chuckled when he saw the splotches of mud on the front of healer's shirt. "The wagon's stuck."
"I gathered that," Sanchez replied as he eyed the back wheel of the wagon, which was sunk up to the axle in thick mud.
"I think we're gonna need all the boys to get it out – it's in there pretty good," Chris added, coming around the side of the wagon.
Cuervo laid his ears back as Josiah guffawed. Chris glared, but the heat of it was diminished both by the faint smile pulling at the gunslinger's lips and the mud drenching the leader, turning all of his black clothing brown. Chris shook his head and kept his voice flat as he declared, "Go get the others, Sanchez, before I'm forced to hug you."
Save them. Two days.
"I'm ready for a hot bath," JD declared as they trudged back towards town.
"I still can't understand how ya managed ta get that dang thing stuck in there so deep with nothin' on it," Vin groused to Chris as they plodded along in front of their exhausted horses.
"It was Nathan's fault," Larabee replied wryly.
"My fault? My fault?" Nathan responded indignantly. He paused, then added, "I'd be tempted to throw mud at you, but I don't think it would do any damage."
"How mature of you, brother," Josiah said with a grin.
"Yeah, good thing Ezra weren't here – he would've had a fit 'bout gettin' muddy," Buck added.
"He's not back yet?" Nathan asked.
Buck shook his head. "Nope. Sent a message day a'fore yesterday – he was gonna spend a few more days helpin' get the Warrens settled in before spending a day in Eagle Bend and then headin' back. Pro'ly won't be back for a week or so."
Chris nodded slowly as they reached the outskirts of town. "Any trouble while we were gone?" he asked, his eyes flickering between each group member.
JD shrugged. "Nothin' we couldn't handle."
Ambush. Gotta warn 'em.
Five heads shot up to look at Vin, who was standing at the entrance to the livery. Chris set the towel he was using to wipe down Diablo aside and stepped out of the stall, his gaze piercing as the tracker continued staring out into the rain. "There's someone comin' in," Vin continued quietly.
"Can ya see who it is?" Buck asked as they all moved to look out the livery door.
"Not quite yet," Vin replied as he raised a hand to direct their gazes. "But he ain't got a horse."
Gradually they all spotted the figure that was stumbling towards town. Every few steps the shape would lurch to the ground and then get up a moment later. "What the hell?" Buck asked as the figure fell again.
JD suddenly gasped loudly as Vin tensed. "Ezra," Vin declared grimly as JD leapt up onto his unsaddled horse and raced past the rest of the flabbergasted lawmen.
Warn 'em. Gotta save them.
"Ezra!" JD hollered as he pulled Mica to a halt a few feet away from the gambler, who was still staggering forward. "Ezra?" JD called again as he slid off the bareback horse and landed in the mud with a squelch.
The conman trudged past JD, his head and shoulders hunched against the drizzling rain. His jacket and vest were gone, leaving him in a now-muddied white shirt and pinstriped pants, which were torn and coated with mud. JD laid a hand on Standish's shoulder. "Ez?"
Ezra shrugged off the hand and moved forward, stumbling slightly but staying on his feet. "Gotta warn 'em," he slurred, his accent deeper than usual. "Gotta save 'em."
"Warn us about what?" JD asked, moving to block the gambler's path. He grasped the conman's forearms this time. "Ezra?"
Ezra merely pitched forward into JD's arms, causing JD to tumble backwards. The pair fell to the ground in a heap of arms and legs, effectively covering the both of them in mud. Standish tried to force himself back up to his feet, only to stumble as he tripped on JD's leg a moment later. "Two days! Gotta save 'em!" Ezra exclaimed forcefully.
"Ezra! Ezra, it's me, JD!" the young sheriff spluttered, scrambling to his knees as he tried to grasp the muddy gambler. He stared up into Ezra's face and frowned when he saw the glazed green eyes staring back into his.
Ezra blinked lethargically a few times as he looked at JD. The steady thrum of hooves pounding into the mud announced the arrival of the rest of the lawmen, but JD didn't move, instead keeping his focus on the gambler who continued to stare blankly back at him. "JD?" Chris demanded as he dismounted from Diablo.
"He's real sick," JD declared worriedly, his left hand straying up to the conman's forehead. He cringed at the heat radiating out from the mud.
Ezra blinked again, and his eyes seemed to clear for a moment. "JD?"
JD smiled as the others gathered around and kneeled down into the mud. "Hey, Ez."
Ezra's eyes suddenly flashed with panic and his hands shot up to twist in JD's coat. "Gotta warn 'em! Ambush! Trelawney! Gotta… gotta…"
And just as quickly as the fight surged up in the conman it disappeared, and he sagged forward into the Easterner's arms.
"He was muttering something about an ambush and trying to warn us when I caught up to 'im," JD explained at the questioning looks the others were giving him.
Josiah reached forward and gently tugged the Southerner towards him and Nathan so the healer could take a look at him. "He's burning up," Josiah declared softly as Ezra's head rolled back and forth beneath the preacher's large hand, his lips moving in an endless mutter.
"Move… keep movin'… gotta warn 'em… gotta save 'em…"
"We gotta get him back into town and get him in bed," Nathan declared, his dark eyes flickering up to look at the black-clad leader. "He's got a nasty case of pneumonia."
"Chris," Vin cut in quietly, reaching forward to grab the conman's right hand. He gently prodded the swollen thumb. "It's dislocated."
"He's got some nasty cuts on his wrists," Buck added. "And the other thumb's outta whack, too."
"What's that mean?" JD asked when he saw the hard look in Chris' eyes as the gunslinger eyed the gambler's hands.
"He dislocated his thumbs to get outta whatever was bindin' his wrists," Vin explained, his own eyes flashing angrily as he massaged the swollen hand. "Musta wanted ta get away real bad."
"To warn us about the ambush, most likely," Josiah added.
"Ezra? Ezra!" Chris called, tapping the conman on the cheek.
Ezra's eyes flickered open again. "Chris?" he asked, his voice croaky.
"Ezra, what happened?"
Ezra's eyes widened and he surged upward again. "Chris! Ambush! Two days – Trelawney's gang! Gonna sneak up an' kill everyone on Friday night!" The gambler gradually slumped back to rest against Josiah again. "Two days… gotta warn 'em," he finished quietly, his eyes sliding closed. "Keep movin'… move."
The others looked up at Chris, who rocked back on his heels. "Two days?" JD finally murmured. "But it's already Friday. Why two days?"
"Friday must've been two days away when he set out," Josiah replied.
"He's been walkin' for two days straight in this weather – no wonder he's so sick," Nathan declared with a shake of his head. "He had to have been goin' almost nonstop to have made it on foot from Eagle Bend."
"Hoss?" Buck called softly as Chris shot straight up.
Chris' eyes were hard as he watched the feverish conman squirm in Josiah's grip. His lips curled into a sneer. "Let's get Ezra back to town. Then we've got a little surprise to plan for Trelawney's gang."
Save 'em. Save 'em. Gotta save 'em. Gotta warn 'em.
Chris' eyes flicked up from the book of Psalms Josiah had lent him as the figure on the bed stirred for the first time in several days. He smiled faintly as confused green eyes roamed slowly around the room before coming to rest on the gunslinger. "Mr. Larabee," Ezra croaked finally.
"Ezra," Chris answered with a nod, setting the book aside. "How're you feeling?"
Ezra licked his dry lips. "Terrible," he admitted, pulling his arm out from the thick covering of blankets to rub at his eyes. He frowned at the bandage binding his thumb to his hand. "What happened?"
Chris merely stared back for a moment. Suddenly the gambler shot up with wide eyes. "Trelawney!"
"Is on his way to Yuma," Chris replied calmly, reaching over and forcing Standish back down. Standish blinked at him, confused, and the gunslinger couldn't hold back a wry grin as he helped the conman sit up and then handed Ezra a glass of water. Ezra cradled it awkwardly between his bandage-bound hands. "You made it in time. We had a nice little surprise arranged for Trelawney and his gang. Even managed to get the Eagle Bend telegraph operator."
Ezra's mouth twitched ruefully around the rim of the cup. "Yes, I do believe I have learned my lesson about being too forthcoming in regards to my occupation," he said in a slightly stronger voice. "I must confess that I told him of the rather shorthanded state my extended departure would leave our fair municipality in, as I knew both you and Mr. Jackson were planning to take an excursion out to the village." He winced as his voice started cracking and took a few more sips of the water.
Chris nodded, sliding the cup out of Ezra's shaky grip. "Yeah – Trelawney was madder than a hornet when he found out we weren't so shorthanded 'round here after all. He was 'bout ready ta shoot Jenkins – that operator – for feedin' him 'false information'."
Ezra sighed satisfactorily as he slumped back against the pillows. "Well, I am pleased to discover that none of our companions were harmed as a result of my loquaciousness."
"Ya did good, Ezra."
Ezra blinked in surprise at the quiet admission. "I'm afraid I would disagree with that statement, as I was the reason Trelawney targeted our borough in the first place."
"Yeah, and he would've done some serious damage if you hadn't escaped as quickly as you did," Chris replied seriously. "You damn near killed yourself trying to get here to warn us in time. None of us take that lightly, Ez."
A flush rose up Ezra's pale cheeks as he traced the pattern of the quilt with a finger. He stared at the bound thumb for a moment before sliding his hand back under the covers. "I was merely performing my duties, Mr. Larabee," he said finally.
Chris nodded. "Get some rest. The boys and I are expecting a card game real soon, so you better not strain your thumbs too much," he added knowingly.
The faint movement of Ezra's hands under the quilts ceased immediately as the gambler stopped trying to free his thumbs. "I would hate to cause permanent injury," the gambler murmured as his eyes slid shut again. "My hands are my livelihood, after all."
Chris hummed in agreement as Ezra's breathing leveled off in slumber. He picked up the book again, flicked back to his previous spot, and resumed reading where he had stopped.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…