Ezra woke up when he tried to turn over in bed.
It was distressing to slowly realize he wasn't actually in bed, but outdoors somewhere. He could hear water crashing over rocks, feel a damn cold wind blowing about his ears.
Hog-tied, too, by the feel of it. It was probably his own fault. And if not, then it was almost certainly Mr. Larabee's.
He assembled the facts of the matter layer by layer.
Because he was an idiot he'd stopped in a dustbowl called Four Corners in order to make some money. Because he was acquisitive he'd nearly gotten killed in a native village in the middle of nowhere and ended up being paid beans to keep pulling off similar heroics. For reasons he hadn't yet worked out he'd been out on some trail with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner hard on the heels of gun-toting villains. The persistence of his current run of bad luck would suggest he must have been waylaid somehow while on this mission. And to cap it all, as a direct result of all of that, his unseen enemies had apparently trussed him up and left him in the wilderness.
Ezra managed to get his eyes open far enough to see the waving branches of a tree overhead. He felt one leg bend instinctively, trying to help him shift position. As he went with it, a wave of pain shot right through him and he heard a sound like a dog whining.
"He's wakin' up," said a familiar voice.
"Easy now, don't panic," said another. "Ezra, listen to me. Jus' calm down ... don't move about."
Why? an anxious inner questioner demanded. Why? Why not?
He tried to sit up. The pain returned in force, and the dog whined again.
"Ezra. Listen ta me. Stay still. You need ta stay still."
Ezra stopped moving because he had to, not really because Chris Larabee had just told him to. He cracked his eyes again, saw Vin's head framed against the whirling trees.
Because we were doing our job, we were out on the trail. And then what? Ezra huffed, and then it came to him.
Because my horse has no self-control.
"Damn horse," he said in a cracked voice.
"Yep, that's about the size of it."
There was still something missing. Ezra frowned, licked his lips and found them crusty, his tongue too large for his mouth. There was one other important question. Why in hell had Chris and Vin trussed him up like a turkey?
"Put yer arms out to break ya fall, pard. Fair busted up." Vin's voice was worried.
"That's why ya gotta keep still," Larabee supplemented in the kind of tone that suggested he probably didn't think any of this was his fault, but that he certainly thought it was Ezra's.
A chill rose up through his belly, spread out across his chest.
"Here, let's get him sat up. Can you manage that, pard? We'll get you up, get some food into ya."
Levered by degrees from his prone position, Ezra could now see. One arm was seemingly lashed to a block of wood, attached in a sharp and agonizing "v" across his chest. The bloodless tips of his fingers were visible just under his chin. Lower down, heavy and burning, his other arm, bloody and misshapen, was nestling in a sling the color of dusky rose. The knot of the sling was digging into his neck. He was unable to move so much as a fingernail, partly because of the wrappings and partly because ... a wave of intense dizziness overcame him at the attempt.
Not only was he not in bed, not rich and comfortable in some nice, civilized town, owner of a sumptuous emporium and a complete credit to his mother ... he'd been completely crippled because his wretched horse had got the skitters. Ezra really wasn't sure what was worse. The ignominy, the pain or suddenly being reliant on Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner for everything.
He closed his eyes and hoped it would all go away.
Vin and Chris crouched either side of him and looked at each other.
"Well this is shit," Vin said. Chris didn't agree, just gnawed the corner of his lower lip and then looked around them like he could find some inspiration.
Vin shook his head at the injured man. He couldn't make up his mind if Ezra was damn lucky or just the opposite. When the gopher had shot from the undergrowth and Chaucer decided to rear in hysteria like there was a rattler under his hooves, Vin had at first feared that Ezra would land on his back, or his head. It hadn't surprised him that Standish had lost his saddle so easily since he hadn't been concentrating in the first place. Too busy complaining. Vin had been relieved when he'd landed front first though. More than relieved that he stayed conscious and that Chaucer elected not to trample on him.
Ezra had been trying to regain his feet when they reached him.
One look at the color of his face was all it took. Vin had braced for the weight, was better placed than Chris to catch, and some kind of luck made him clutch Ezra round the middle as he folded.
"His arm's busted," Chris had said soon as Ezra was flopped out on the earth in front of them.
"Looks that way."
They'd done what Nathan would do. Ghosted their hands up and down, testing. Didn't need any kind of expertise to see and feel that Chris was right. But only halfway right.
"Aw hell no ... this one too."
"Damn, ya sure?"
They'd cut the jacket off, and the shirt sleeves. Set the left forearm best they could, had a struggle with the right elbow. Vin had felt sick halfway through but didn't give into it. They used his rose-colored paisley bandana to fix a sling and then tried to wrap him up a bit to keep him warm.
"How in hell we gonna get him home like this?" Chris sounded disgusted.
And then Ezra had woken up and tried to move.
"Maybe best if ya stay awake awhile now, pard." Vin tried to be encouraging when it seemed like Ezra was going to drift away again.
Bright, lucid eyes popped open. Lips pursed. "For what exactly?"
"Ya need to drink. Take a bite. An' then we need to talk about how we're gettin' you home."
There were an awful lot of thoughts on Ezra's face.
For a man who couldn't afford to give anything away, Vin thought, there was one hell of a lot on offer right now.
He was peeved, in that way Ezra had. And he was resentful somehow, even when he'd had his eyes closed. Kind of ornery. Vin could read some fear, too.
And eventually a particular, very specific kind of discomfort.
"Ya need me to getcha a pot?"
Ezra looked at him in dismay. "No ..." he said. "I don't ..." He kicked at the blanket over his legs, got a foot to the hard earth. Vin heard Chris tutting from his position over the fire.
"All right, pard. We'll getcha up, long as you ain't gonna fall over on us agin. Sit forward. Brace ya legs."
Chris scooted over to lend a hand.
Vin felt no embarrassment. It wasn't the first time he'd assisted a man to answer a call of nature, but it was the first time he'd helped one who felt so wretched and mortified about it.
"This is not the kind of favor I wish ever to repay you," Ezra said through gritted teeth as Vin fastened his pants. "But your courage is much appreciated."
Vin grinned faintly. "Least you ain't ugly," was all he said.
He let Ezra walk unaided back to the camp, staying a pace or two behind. The man was blessed with a sure foot and good balance as a general rule, but bruised and dazed and carrying two busted bones, Vin wasn't so sure.
"Watch yaself," he said but Ezra just grunted at him, righted himself when his boots slithered on some loose stones.
"What's for dinner?" he asked when he was back on the ground. His voice sounded off kilter.
"Got a rabbit," Chris reported. "Guess it'll be rabbit."
Vin squatted down by the bedrolls, tried a little examination of the bandaging round the right arm. Ezra shifted but he didn't say anything, didn't try to pull away.
Vin shook his head again as he looked at him. Thinking about losing the use of both arms at once filled him with a creeping kind of horror. The thought of how vulnerable it made Ezra, how damn helpless he'd be feeling. It was written all over him.
"It's all right," he felt he had to say. "We'll look after ya."
Yet more nuances passed across the tight features. Resignation, which had to be a bitch of a thing.
And damn. Ezra was hurting. Pretty bad.
"We got nothing."
Chris didn't beat about the bush.
"No laudanum?" Vin asked. The two of them hated the stuff, but they'd seen Buck slip off to sleep on it like a contented baby after a feed, despite having two bullets in his thigh. Chris could wish for a little bottle of the poison right about now.
"When do we ever carry laudanum if Nathan ain't with us?"
"Sawdust tea?" Ezra's cracked voice asked, heavily laced with irony.
"Never thought to bring it."
"Whisky then? Please tell me we have whisky." A little note of desperation was in the voice now and Chris saw Vin pat him on the leg.
"Where's ya flask?" he asked pointedly.
Ezra sighed, and his breath hitched at the end of it. "In my room."
Chris shrugged, although he didn't feel as casual as he guessed it made him appear. "Like I said. We got nothing."
Ezra swallowed, leaned his head back on the tree. "Marvelous," he said.
Chris shifted a little closer, narrowed his eyes. Ezra looked even paler than he had before if that was possible. Damn. Two nasty fractures, strapped up by amateurs and nothing to take away the edge.
"Easy, Ezra. Jus' try and take it easy."
"I'm fine," Ezra said, badly shaky. "I'm fine, really fine."
"Let me go wash up then I'll sit with him." Vin nudged him away. "You go make our supper."
Chris got to his feet. "Ain't we just the nice little family?" he said wryly.
He heard Vin talking while he was cutting up the rabbit and setting up the spit. Trying to distract Ezra from the pain and doing the kind of good job that Vin Tanner was made to do. While the meat was cooking he stirred up some onion water for gravy, warmed up the biscuits over the fire. Then he made up a pot of coffee.
Under normal circumstances they would have sat around chewing on the meat straight off the spit, dipping in the gravy maybe and soaking up the remains with the biscuit. They'd have all gotten greasy, burned fingers and washed down the meal with lukewarm coffee already needing to sleep.
Tonight Chris chopped up what he could of the cooked flesh, set it on a tin plate with some broken up pieces of biscuit. He poured a good slosh of the gravy water over and then stirred it a little with a fork. Then he made sure Vin had his share before he came over and sat down carefully next to Ezra.
"Don't give me any shit, Ezra," he said warningly. "Ya need ta eat all a' this."
He stabbed a small forkful of the well-browned meat, dabbed it in the liquid. Holding the plate close to catch any drips, he pushed the implement towards Ezra's lips. Ezra watched it coming nearer, swallowed hard and then snagged the offering with his teeth, sliding it from the fork with a scrape.
Chris grinned at him, watched the sluggish chewing.
"Ah hate rabbit," Ezra said when he'd swallowed.
"Me too. Here's another."
Ezra took three consecutive mouthfuls of the meat before he began to resist.
"No moah. That's enough. Not that it isn't delightful but ..."
"Eat," Chris said. "Ya need to line ya stomach." He swirled a mix of rabbit and biscuit in the slop of gravy liquid. "Just a couple more."
Ezra didn't quite have the spirit left in him to try one of those last-minute head-turns that Adam had been so expert at.
"You haven't eaten in hours and you ain't gunna sleep a goddamn wink unless you got somethin' to work on."
"He ain't gonna sleep anyhow," Vin said glumly. He'd put down his plate and now came over and plucked Ezra's from Chris's hand. "Yours is gettin' cold. Cold gravy'll only make ya sore. I'll finish up."
"He may be finished," Chris said doubtfully, moving aside. He plumped himself down on a pile of blankets and shoveled up as large a forkful of the food as he could manage. Ezra let Vin press a canteen to his lips and took several swallows of water.
"No," he said when more food was offered.
Ezra just groaned. Chris knew the one thing they didn't want to do was tip him over into nausea. Figured him puking while he couldn't help himself would be worse than unpleasant all round. Vin tutted. He laid the plate down, pulled down the cuff of his sleeve and scrubbed a dribble of gravy from Ezra's chin.
"Dear God," Ezra slurred. "Jus' shoot me."
Chris smirked around his cooling, gravy-soaked rabbit.
They let him alone while they cleared up, hoping he might drift off. Vin disposed of the rabbit carcass far enough away they'd be warned if any predator tried to follow the scent back to them. Between them they doused the plates and forks in the brackish stream, shook them dry and stuffed them back in the bags. Domesticity got kind of short-changed if Josiah and JD weren't around. By then the coffee was hot and the dark had rolled in. Vin banked up some more wood on the fire, dug in his pocket for a twist of paper and tossed it to Larabee. Chris poured a half cup of coffee, unfolded the paper and tipped in the final few grains of sugar.
"Ready for a night-cap?"
Chris was pretty sure Ezra wouldn't refuse coffee. Not even if it had to be fed to him a spoonful at a time. Which in the end it pretty much was.
Then, without saying very much, Vin piled up his saddle and bedroll, hooked a hand under Ezra's belt and helped drag him swiftly across the ground and against his chest. Larabee piled up blankets around them, cursing at the descending chill in the air.
"Nnnngh," Ezra protested, able to do nothing more than slump where he'd been set.
"How about you just shut up?" Vin suggested.
Chris crouched in front of them for a while, finally patted Ezra's cheek.
"Now, ya need help ta move, ya feel cold ... anythin' at all ..."
Ezra just blinked at him in groggy defeat.
Then, because he was one tough sonofabitch, Chris carefully tucked in a wayward corner of the blankets before he settled down close by.