Much too early in the morning, Chris turned around from rooting in the saddlebags to find Vin Tanner standing right behind him.
Damn Texan was forever creeping around and appearing out of nowhere.
Vin just slouched on one hip, looked Chris up and down.
"Well you look like crap."
"He was moanin' all night." Chris pointed an irritable finger. "Couldn't sleep with all that moanin'."
"'Course." Vin was matter-of-fact. He carried his own sleeplessness more gracefully. Always took Tanner a while before he decided he could let it get the better of him.
Chris knew Vin had spent a rough night, what with Ezra slumped against him alternately shivering with the chill or vocalizing semi-conscious discomfort. Tanner wasn't the type to doze off on watch either, which is what Chris suspected he might have done himself, once or twice. He felt borderline guilty about that, and about the fact that he hadn't chosen the body-warmth option when it was his turn to sleep. He'd wedged Ezra in some kind of possible sleeping position, ensured he was as protected from the night air as he could be given the meager supply of blankets they carried. But beyond that, he'd just slept close, perhaps an arm's length away, ignoring the pathetic sounds that drifted over from time to time, ready to react somehow if things got any worse than they already were.
"Hafta get him home."
That had been the thought rambling around his mind all goddamn night. Staying in camp didn't feel like an option, even though they'd talked about it yesterday. At one point - maybe about the time Ezra had been eating and responsive - they'd had an idea they could settle in for a day or two. Let their injured friend get some rest.
By now, in the exacting light of day, rest and recuperation was clearly a pipe dream. In any case Vin had that poised concentration about him that told of a new determination to leave.
"Ain't got the supplies and he needs Nathan."
"So what then?"
"Ride slow," Vin said. "Real slow. No more'n a walk if I can keep my horse steady. I'll take Ezra. You go on ahead, bring Nathan to us."
Vin scratched his head. "Nope?"
"Ain't leavin' you two out here with no back-up. You'll be keepin' him quiet in the saddle, won't be lookin' out for trouble." Larabee squared his shoulders. "'sides, we'll hafta take turns."
"So that's what we're gonna do? Ain't goin' back to the wagon plan?"
"Shit, even if we did find someone who'd loan us a wagon out here, it'd be the same route home. Same pace. Same jostlin'." He found himself wincing at the thought.
Vin nodded. It seemed settled far as he was concerned.
"Could use some breakfast."
Larabee looked over at Ezra. He'd tilted sideways again, too out of it to even let them know. Chris walked across and bent down, grasping a belt-loop and handful of shirt-collar. With one move, more a yank than anything else, he'd hauled the swaying torso upright. Ezra's response was not coherent.
"Ya welcome." Chris stayed in place just long to make sure he wasn't going straight over again and then rose to his feet.
He and Vin cooked up the bacon, beans and coffee between them. It was hardly enough for one, never mind three, but was about all they had left. To Chris's mind this meant the slow walk back to town couldn't be anywhere near as slow as it probably ought to be.
"Can ya handle grub?" Vin asked in an encouraging kind of way, right before Chris had intended to spell out to Ezra in no uncertain terms that he goddamn well had to get something down or there'd be trouble.
Ezra's head raised a half inch. He wore the faraway expression of someone who's too busy just coping to process much of anything. The bilious look to his complexion was enough to make you lose your damn appetite. Chris figured even keeping still wasn't helping.
Both arms. Shit, must pain him something awful. Standish needed something stronger than coffee and a few bad jokes and he needed it soon. Body could do all kinds of strange things to a man when it was being pushed beyond normal limits.
"Get some food down him," he said.
"You goddamn well get some food down him."
Chris quirked a brow. Maybe Tanner was feeling the fatigue after all.
Anyhow, whoever the provider, Ezra wasn't in the mood for being fed this morning. He assented to water, struggled with a mouthful or two of coffee. But he wouldn't tolerate food. In fact, he began to over-breathe when Chris even approached with a plate and fork.
"All right, all right!" Larabee backed off again.
While he and Vin ate, Ezra hunched over, wiggling bloodless fingers in front of his face. He seemed determinedly unaware of them.
"Take ya for a little walk, Ez." Vin rose to his feet soon as he'd finished.
Ezra reacted to that all right. His head wobbled from side to side and he looked up at Vin with one eye shut.
"Ah think not."
"Ya need ta stretch ya legs. Ain't gonna be havin' a rest stop for a coupla hours. No need to come over all shy on me."
Ezra just went on shaking his head like a marionette out of control.
Chris intervened, not able to help his smirk at how Tanner was playing Ma to his Pa.
"If he says he don't want to, then reckon he don't want to. What's he had to piss anyhow? Coupla slugs of water? Don't recall gettin' much of that goddamn coffee inside him."
Vin shrugged with his version of irritated.
It didn't take long to break camp.
"I can sit mah horse," Ezra claimed when they'd raised him to a standing position between them.
"Let me sit mah..."
"If it wasn't for ya damn horse, we wouldn't be in this mess!"
Larabee's snarl surprised even him in its vehemence. Standish reared back at the intimidation and Vin had to keep tight hold of his belt because his balance was shot to pieces. Chris wagged a finger. "I ain't scrapin' your ass off the ground if ya get unseated again. That clear?" He was more relieved than he could say when an attempt at defiance lit Ezra's eyes.
While it might make things easier in some respects, Chris didn't care for the pliant, resigned Ezra at all. Damn un-natural for a start and wouldn't keep him going.
Vin glared like he thought Larabee was being too tough.
Chris glared right back.
"Ain't time for gentle." That was the only justification he'd give. Tanner didn't seem convinced but Chris could live with it. He offered a small concession, just for friendship's sake. "It's comin', but it ain't here yet."
Vin still hadn't let go Ezra's belt. "Let me know," he said to Larabee, a warning note in his voice. "Cuz I have a feelin' I might not be able to tell when you've goddamn well decided."
They passed him back and forth between them like a parcel.
No matter how forcefully Ezra argued his case (which he guessed wasn't really very forcefully at all since he could hardly hold his head up), they wouldn't let him ride alone. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner combined were implacable, despite the all-around discomfort of riding double on saddles that weren't designed to take more than one human male at a time.
Ezra acknowledged he wasn't the greatest horseman of the group. Under normal circumstances he could look passably elegant, but he knew perfectly well how hard it would have been to keep his balance with only two functioning limbs. Being held immobile was almost intolerable, however. It was a shame and discomfiture of the highest order.
And the horses didn't like the walk, none of them. They weren't used to such a stilted pace out here, wanted to kick for home. Chaucer fussed alongside whoever was leading and Ezra, knowing the animal as he did, expected more trouble. He guessed if the horse decided to perform one of his flighty leg-kicks or nonsensical strayings off the trail, he'd be glad enough not to be seated on him. He'd be grateful then for the strong arms that kept him almost too firmly in place.
But soon notions of gratitude or resentment became as nothing. His world seemed to shrink to a nauseating, interminable swaying motion. The single sound he was aware of was the steady thump of hooves picking over rough ground. The monotony was broken only by a succession of changeovers which hurt like the very Devil. It felt like either Tanner or Larabee had a hand - or two - on him all the time, which was no more or less than a warped kind of living hell. Except in very limited circumstances, Ezra believed it better to remain untouched. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be left alone and yet the fear of it churned his gut, made his heart jump about in his chest.
Vin murmured encouragement from time to time.
"If ya worryin' I'll let ya fall jus'... don't."
Chris chose to be more unequivocal whenever he had charge of the parcel. "Stop damn well shiftin' about! Jesus, ya drivin' me crazy here."
Ezra knew he was flirting with awareness, despite the rhythmic shocks. Bobbing just out of reach was the horror that this - this demeaning and unrelenting dependency - might be his future.
Late in the afternoon they stopped for water and by the time they'd coaxed him to the ground and propped him in the shade, Ezra thought he might as well stop trying to be helpful and just give in to gravity. He wanted to curl on his side only they wouldn't let him.
"You tip over like that it's gonna hurt like a bitch."
Chris removed his hat, wiped his sweaty forehead for him.
"Couple hours, we'll make camp, you can sleep."
"Sleep?" he thought he said in derision.
"Shush now." Larabee's chiding tone made him think maybe he'd said something else.
After a while he made an abortive move to shift position and couldn't help a suppressed moan. Someone ruffled his hair, plonked his hat back on his head. Ezra would have guessed Vin, but if he wasn't mistaken, Mr. Tanner's boots were not the ones he could see in his peripheral vision.
He laughed out loud at that, a laugh that didn't seem to have enough air and hurt him all over.
"Easy, Ezra." Indubitably Mr. Tanner. Larabee, for some reason he'd doubtless be subjected to at length if he didn't die, was still too pissed at him to have such a quieting voice.
He couldn't decide anymore if it was better being still or moving. If it was better concentrating on the ground or the sky or the fierce red behind his eyelids that was the visual interpretation of his hurts. He knew he no longer cared that when Vin crouched down to give him water, whatever he couldn't swallow ran out of his mouth and pooled in the bandana. A part of him half expected to be chastened for that, in the manner of his mother, who'd never liked the mess of infirmity. Vin just blotted up the excess, said not a word.
Ezra was well schooled in the facts of life. One of the most illimitable being that when things seemed bad, they could always get worse, and, indeed, undoubtedly would.
Half an hour further down the trail, a rifle shot split the air.
Not the kind of thing that was generally all that surprising out here. It didn't seem aimed at them, was rather something happening in someone else's vicinity. But it was close enough. And all three of them reacted.
Ezra was already attempting a sideways roll when he felt himself dragged from the saddle. Chris's hold on his waist never faltered for a second. He was carried right off the horse and on to the ground, landing on his back with a thud.
"Down!" Vin was yelling. "Stay down!"
Chris crouched right over him. Low, low over him.
Ezra, for his part, was desperate to move. He caught a dun-colored flash, realized Vin was heading for the source of the trouble. His own instincts were as strong as ever to get out of the line of fire, to scuttle into a small space and go for his guns, even though they'd been removed for his own safety. He struggled against the strapping that held his arms, needing to protect himself. To protect his fellows, come to that. The instinct was strong enough that he pulled his right arm free of the pink bandana, even while sprawled under Larabee's protective weight.
"Keep ya damn head down!" An arm hard against his ribs stilled every movement, trapped him where he lay.
Minutes passed. There were no more gunshots, just the sound of slithering, loose stones cascading down from the rocks as Tanner returned.
"Some jackass takin' potshots."
A breathless pause. "You ain't squashed him?"
Ezra heard Larabee tut and felt an attempt to straighten him out. He would have resisted if he could but all he knew was white-hot pain, fingertips to shoulders.
"How the hell he manage that?" Vin demanded, pulling at the end of bandana in dismay. "Thought he was strapped up good."
"Tryin' to help I reckon."
He just lay where he was, puffing and voiceless.
"We'll getcha home." There was the first edge of doubt in Vin's voice.
Larabee agreed. "But if we get shot at again, Ezra, you gotta stay where you are and do as ya told, not damn well scrabble about like that."
Ezra moved his head, sluggish. He guessed they'd have trouble deciding if it was a nod or a shake, especially as he didn't know himself.
"Thanks anyhow," Chris said, gruff as bears.
The last five miles, as darkness fell, Vin's own arms burned. Ezra seemed to have about given up sitting straight and it was a hell of a thing holding him upright enough that he wasn't leaning on his injuries. Every so often Vin heard a faint "awghhhh".
Chris left them about a mile from town.
"I'll go roust out Nathan." He cast a look around. "You better not get bushwhacked."
"Jus' go," Vin said. "And take that damn nuisance."
Ezra raised his head but Vin nudged him with a couple of knuckles to let him know it was all right. As Chris disappeared into the fading light, Chaucer in tow, Vin leaned around and patted his own horse. The steady walk was a strain and there was frustration in the occasional toss of its head.
Ezra dug his knees in, trying to take more of his own weight. "Never make it..." he said unexpectedly.
Vin poked him again. "We're doin' fine."
"Ah mean in the circus."
"Huh," Vin said. "What do you know about the damn circus?"
They held the same kind of disjointed conversations all the way back and Vin figured it maybe helped. He fought the temptation to quicken the pace as they came into town. They walked on through the outlying buildings and all the way up the main street, past the jail, the Clarion and the Mercantile. Buck joined them at the saloon, strode alongside, one anxious hand on Ezra's boot. Vin felt able to loosen his awkward hold for the first time in hours. Nathan was standing ready at the Livery. Chris, on the second step, pulled himself to his feet when Vin's horse came to a stop.
"Be ready, Nathan. Bin makin' a habit a' kissin' the dirt soon as he's down."
Vin slid to the ground and coached Ezra out of the saddle once again, he hoped for the last time.
"Nice'n slow there, pard. Ain't walked all this way with ya to mess things up now."
"He with us?" Buck sounded doubtful that this would be the case.
"Right with us." Vin was firm, determined to keep Ezra on his feet no matter what. Dignity was as important as anything.
"You done set those bones?" Nathan's incredulity piqued Vin for a second or two. He wondered if Chris felt the same weight of responsibility over their work as he did.
"Best we could."
"Don't like the look of him."
"Ezra's doin' fine," Vin said doggedly. He felt some unwillingness to let him out of his hold, but Nathan and Buck had moved in. Buck began to nudge Ezra towards the steps.
"Least we ain't carryin' you." He sounded impressed. "One step atta time mind, that's the way. I gotcha back here, you jus' need to concentrate on ya feet."
Vin was grateful to Buck for introducing a new voice. He didn't have a drop more cajoling in him, and even Larabee was all out of bark, though he still sounded kind of pissed.
"God's sake give him something, Nathan. Man needs a break."
"I see that." Nathan was businesslike. "Sit on the bed, Ezra. You can take a dose 'fore I see what we've got."
"We've got two broken arms, Mr. Jackson."
Vin cast a look over at Chris, saw his mouth hitch up one side in that look of disgust he often reserved for Standish, the look that Vin knew was a smile that couldn't come.
"So I hear. Down you go."
Ezra sat with a slow and careful exhalation. Having spoken, his jaw was now rigid, teeth clamped. The set of his face was plain all around pitiful to look at and Vin guessed every inch of him hurt like one miserable, goddamn sonofabitch.
There was the sound of a lid being spun and then Nathan appeared with a brown bottle. No spoon, no niceties. "Here it comes."
Ezra's locked jaw released on command, just enough to let the liquid in. He took one difficult swallow. Then two, the second probably bigger than it should have been given Nathan's sudden alarm. There was half a minute of cautious silence while Ezra registered distaste shortly followed by disgust.
And then something else.
"Holy Muthaaah of Gahhhhgh..."
The words were thick with approaching oblivion. A new expression rose over the drawn features, almost lit them up.
It was a smile. One of the best Vin had ever seen.
"Hell fire, would ya goddamn well look at that."
Then Chris shifted in quick as Ezra tipped over.
"Whoah, careful there!" Buck yelped.
But, before Nathan could say anything, Vin had grabbed Ezra's feet and tugged him flat as Chris shoveled a pillow under his head. It was more or less how they'd worked for the last two days and Vin didn't miss the suspicious look Nathan gave them.
He backed away from the bed, feeling behind himself for the easy chair in the corner of the room. Larabee balanced uneasily on a stool, something akin to a glower on his face. Vin knew there was no way he was moving straightaway.
"I'm gonna do my work," Nathan informed them, perching on the side of the bed. "If you two ain't hurt, ya need to get yaselves fed and rested. Ya not needed here anymore."
Vin could see Chris didn't agree with that. Not a bit of it.
"Reckon we'll stay a while," he said.
Nathan muttered something in response and slipped one hand under the tattered bindings.
Soon as he was touched, the insensible grin lurched off Ezra's face. He groaned. Somehow Vin wasn't surprised when Larabee's hand shot out and wrapped around the healer's wrist.
"Easy," he growled under his breath.
"You done a good job." Nathan was calm, didn't react to Chris's hand. He just waited, still and patient, until Larabee released him. Then he sliced through the bandana with one swift cut, not able to prevent the small jolt that made Ezra's head come off the pillow. "Now you need to go look after yaselves." He paused, looked to Buck who was still slouching by the door. "Leave me to do my work."
Buck pushed off the wall. "Time to go," he said.
Larabee scrubbed at his jaw. He was still watchful, eyes following Nathan's every movement. Vin knew he thought Jackson might discover evidence they'd done things wrong, had hurt the bones worse. Would turn around and say if only they'd treated Ezra a little kinder he'd be a damn sight better off. Vin was in half a mind about that himself, only he was pretty sure they'd done their best. Given the circumstances. And the patient.
Buck moved behind Larabee, slid a hand over his shoulder. "Doc's got Ezra. You can stand down now."
Vin hoisted himself out of the easy chair.
"Be back to check on him later."
"No you won't," Nathan said without turning round. "You'll damn well be asleep."
Buck was still trying to hustle Larabee to his feet without much success.
"Enough," came the low threat in the end, and Wilmington let go with a huff of defeat.
Leaning forward, Chris scooped up a blanket and laid it over Ezra's legs. He stayed planted on the stool and Nathan didn't say anything else.
Vin thought that was all right. He put a hand to Buck's shoulder as he followed him to the door. Everything had been said and done for a reason, to make good an accident that shouldn't have happened. Vin knew Larabee would certainly never apologize for harrying Ezra every goddamn step of the way.
But now... he gave Chris a little nod as he went out.
Now it was time for gentle.