Sequel to "Samaritan's Choice"- should probably read that one first for better understanding of events in this one. Written for the 2010 M7bigbang
Disclaimer- no copyright infringement intended with use of M7 characters.
Thank you to NT for betaing!
He jerked with each blow. Swaying from the branch they'd tied him to. His wrists were slick and numb where the rope cut into them. His shoulder excruciating as each movement wrenched it awkwardly, bone grinding against bone. His leg burned and throbbed in time with his racing heart.
There were questions, demands that he didn't have the strength to answer and details that he wouldn't share even if he did.
Then he was falling. Screaming as he hit the ground hard. Someone kicked him and before he could recover, the strap wrapped around his neck. He struggled against it, but it was cinched tight, choking him, cutting off his air, pulling his head up from the dirt, straining his neck even as someone planted a foot between his shoulder blades and held the rest of his torso in place.
He gasped for breath, but the belt tightened. Something hard bit the back of his neck. His vision dimmed. He heard the angry voice yelling at him to answer, but he had no voice.
He was going to die.
Ezra jerked awake with a huge gasp for breath, pushing himself up and out of the bed. Outside, thunder rocked the night, so close and so loud the floor shook beneath his bare feet.
It was a dream.
Just a dream.
He tried to calm himself, jumping as another boom of thunder rattled the windows.
It wasn't a dream, reality reminded him as his thigh throbbed and his shoulder cramped achingly. It was a memory.
Shakily, Standish felt his way across his room to the rocking chair beside the window. Lightning split the sky and illuminated the small room for a second, providing reassurance that he wasn't going to run into anything. He picked up a quilt, a gift left for him by Mrs. Potter and wrapped it around his bare torso. Comforted by its warmth, he sat in the chair and watched as the storm opened up a deluge on the sleeping town.
It'd been almost a month since the attack outside of Bainbridge. His wounds were mostly healed. His wrists bore only fine, fading scars. His thigh only pained him if he spent much time on his feet or in one position, but his shoulder ached continually, especially when it rained.
Reaching up with his good arm, Ezra gently massaged the strained, abused joint still trying to chase away the fear left over from the dream…the flashback.
Lightning crackled again, followed by a rumbling crash.
Outside, he saw movement and watched as Vin darted through the downpour. Tanner's wagon wasn't water tight. Not for rain this hard. Ezra wondered if the tracker would seek shelter in the jailhouse where JD was on duty for the night.
Wincing, Ezra squeezed a particularly tender spot on his shoulder. He'd never told the others the details of his attack. He'd claimed not to remember all of it. Recognizing Tom Wyler and knowing that his attackers had been after the land deeds, that'd been enough to stop any other questions. He couldn't find the words to tell them anything more. They knew enough, almost everything.
They knew about him being strung up and beaten. They knew about the belt. It was the little things he hadn't shared. The way Wyler had placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, laughing when the chamber echoed emptily. Or the fact that they'd dragged him by the neck, forcing him to scramble on his dislocated shoulder and wounded leg before they'd stomped on his back, holding him down while they'd simultaneously pulled his neck up, virtually hanging him as he lay in the dirt, broken and bleeding.
There was no way Ezra could share it all. No way he could ever tell the other six men he respected and fought beside, how very helpless he'd felt in those moments. How he had been so resigned to die.
He had been ready to give up, to let go. He'd prayed for it to end. He'd been ready and willing to run out on all of them.
Shame and fear ate at him now to remember the pain, terror and desolation. His weakness. It wormed into his mind and nagged at him, drawing him into a melancholy hopelessness he couldn't seem to shake.
As the rain continued and the thunder and lightning fought, Ezra battled his own demons of fear and anger. Whoever was behind his attack was still out there somewhere in the night. Larabee suspected Guy Royal, but there was no proof. Standish knew that Wyler had had a contact back here in Four Corners. He wondered still if he was a target. A loose end waiting to be tied up and finished off.
Fear clinched at him and Ezra pulled the quilt tighter around his trembling frame. If he could, he'd never leave his room again, but he knew that wouldn't work. None of his fellow peacekeepers would leave him be if he even tried that plan of action.
Instead, in the morning, he'd paste on a smile and take a seat downstairs. He'd force himself to eat breakfast, to avoid unwanted inquiries over his health and to go through the motions of living while the past haunted every moment of his days and nights.
Weary and overwhelmed with a depression he couldn't fight, Ezra stayed in the motionless rocking chair and watched the storm rage outside even as it raged within.
Ezra eyed himself carefully in the mirror, making sure his green jacket set squarely and was buttoned correctly. Other than the dark circles beneath bloodshot eyes, and hair that was a little too long for a gentleman, he looked normal.
His room was dim in the gray morning light. Rain continued to fall outside, thundered continued to rumble. He hadn't bothered to light a lamp as he got ready for the day. He didn't want to see the scarce furnishings or be reminded that he was still trying to replace items destroyed when his room had been ransacked. He reached out and ran gentle fingers over the waxy carved surface of the jade ball he'd won before the attack, tracing the detailed dragon's tail. His fingers trembled slightly and he paused, squeezing his hand into a tight fist and relaxing again, pleased to see he'd regained some control. Quickly, he put on his gun belt, suppressing shiver when he touched the cold metal of the of the buckle. One more deep breath and he was ready to head downstairs.
Because of the rain, the saloon was packed. Many of the new settlers were still in town, stocking up on supplies and preparing before heading out to their new homesteads. Though Ezra had protected the land deeds it'd taken time to sort out the deeds and get them to their proper owners. Judge Travis was being meticulous about the process and it had dragged the procedure out by days. Most of the newcomers were still clearing their land and living in town until that part of the task was completed. A small 'wagon village' had been set up on the south side of the burg where the settlers had circled their wagons.
This morning, as Ezra made his way carefully down the stairs, it seemed as if there were a couple of hundred people crammed into the place. Ezra knew that was impossible, but for the first time in a very long time, Ezra was antsy and nervous in the crowd instead of ready to embrace it.
"Morning Ezra!" Buck's boisterous greeting sounded over the other noisy patrons. Ezra forced a smile.
"Good Morning, Mr. Wilmington. Mr. Sanchez."
Buck nodded over his plate, waving his fork in the air and talking with his mouthful. "Grab an order from Inez while she's still got food."
"I'm fine thank you." Ezra pulled out a chair and sat beside Josiah who was busy devouring his own meal.
A cup of steaming tea and a plate of toast were set in front of him and he looked up in surprise to see Inez smile as she moved away through the crowd.
Buck stared at Ezra and then at Inez a moment before attacking his eggs with even more gusto. "Crazy storm we're having."
"Yes," Ezra sipped his tea, his eyes scanning the room of strangers for familiar faces.
"Keep you awake last night?" Josiah questioned casually, but when Ezra glanced at the preacher he read the concern in the man's eyes.
"It interrupted my slumber a couple of times," Ezra admitted.
"Damn near knocked me out a bed." Buck shook his head.
"Even drove Vin inside." Josiah waved his fork.
Standish picked at his toast, not hungry but feeling Josiah's scrutiny.
The bat wing doors clamored back and forth as Chris and Vin entered. Weaving through the people, Chris frowned before he found an empty chair and pulled it over to the table where Ezra and the others sat. Vin followed suit.
Rain dripped from both men as they shucked their hats off and rubbed cold hands together for warmth.
"Ain't fit out there," Vin complained snagging a biscuit from Buck's plate.
"Miserable," Ezra agreed.
"Too many people in here." Tanner glanced around the room.
"You think there's gonna be trouble?" Buck asked, taking a look around for himself.
"No sense borrowing any." Josiah leaned back as one of the girl's Inez had taken on while the settlers were in town set full plates in front of Chris and Vin. She blushed at Vin's quiet Thank you and hurried away.
"Nathan's already got him a couple of patients this morning," Chris told them. "Couple of hands fighting over something stupid. Knocked each other around good."
"That's been happening at least once a day since they all got here," Buck acknowledged, refocusing on his food yet again.
Ezra drifted as he listened to the others talk. He knew JD had probably gone on to bed after a night on patrol. Buck would be heading out after breakfast if Chris pushed it, but usually when the weather was this disagreeable, they stayed in unless trouble called them out.
His eyes danced around the room again as he took another sip of tea. He inhaled sharply as his heart suddenly raced. At the far table…that face. God. He knew that face.
"Ezra? You okay?"
He didn't hear Josiah's question. Didn't realize his hand had started shaking so badly that Sanchez had gently reached over and taken the cup out of his hand.
"Ezra?" It was Vin's voice that pulled him back. Somehow Ezra forced himself to look at the tracker.
"What is it?" Chris questioned.
"It's him." Ezra hear the fear in his own voice.