I don't generally have anything to say ahead of my stories, but I have to give credit to Kristin, who, according to this wonderful fandom, dubbed Ezra's horse Chaucer. I am using that name here. . .I think it's perfect. I hope you enjoy the story.
"Was I not intended to be enjoying a relaxing holiday in the Springs of Colorado?" Ezra Standish asked of his fellow lawmen as they did their best taking turns shooting at the gang of stagecoach robbers who'd managed to corner them in a rugged canyon somewhere about the mid-point between Four Corners and Eagle Bend. Though essentially trapped, it was exactly the tactic that they hoped would turn to their advantage. The seven had received an urgent telegraph from Eagle Bend's sheriff. While not normally inclined to assist the man who had become at minimum a nuisance if not just short of a nemesis to them after a number of unpleasant previous encounters, the fact was that innocent people had been seriously injured this time. The stage had been stopped not long before pulling in to town. Eyewitnesses confirmed that the thieves were heading toward Four Corners, six, seven or eight strong, depending on the bystander asked. Everyone knew the unforgiving nature of the terrain between the two dusty towns; the likelihood was that these men who had stolen nearly twenty thousand dollars that had been destined for the bank for numerous payrolls and disbursements to other nearby banks, including Four Corners' own, would be heading the way of the town the now famous 'Magnificent Seven' called home.
What had been unexpected was how quickly this gang made it to Soaring Eagle Notch, a small canyon that was considered the midway point between the two frontier towns. Almost immediately upon passing it, the seven had been fired upon. Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez had both been clipped in the arm; it was their good fortune that the hits had been relative misses. These men may have been intimidating with the stage driver and its passengers, the driver and a passenger had been pistol-whipped, but they were not accomplished with the actual proper use of their weapons. Chris Larabee and his men had retreated into the notch, all seven of them now sitting amongst the large red rock boulders in the chasm-like alcove. And they were fielding bullets fast and furious. It seemed unlikely that the outlaw group's ammunition would last much longer. Larabee had passed along the agreed-upon tactic to sit and wait it out. His men were only to fire if they had high confidence in hitting their targets; being short on ammunition could work both ways.
"Seems like your timing's a little off, Ezra," J.D. Dunne replied as he reloaded his weapon. Standish pushed Dunne's head down a little further – again – as he stood up above the rock, eyed his target, took aim and fired, taking out his second bad guy of the day. "Nice shot."
"Thank you, Mistah Dunne." Standish sat back and began to remove bullets from of his gun belt and reload his Remington, taking a swipe at the sweat on his brow in between placing the ammunition in their temporary slots.
"Hey, Ezra, why weren't you on your way this mornin'?" Vin Tanner asked. The former bounty hunter and crack shot had taken out two more of the gang, leaving what sounded like maybe three or four men remaining, all of whom seemed hell-bent on running out of bullets and making the lawmen's job of corralling them a lot easier.
That is, if Ezra and Vin didn't continue with this unofficial game of one-upmanship that they were inadvertently playing.
"Mistah Tanner, as you full-well know, I have an aversion to this particular time of day even when I have not been ensconced in a game until the wee hours." Ezra, always adept at doing more than one thing at a time, took another shot, knocking the man's hat from his head, and startling him enough for J.D. to get a clean shot to the chest. The man fell to the ground from his horse. "Well done, Mistah Dunne. Add to that," Ezra continued his response to the tracker, "the mere fact that I was challenged far more than is the usual, no disrespect intended to you fine gentlemen's' poker-playing skills, which exhausted me beyond the tired state that the previous week's efforts in protecting this town had already left me, I simply found myself incapable of facing so early a departure simply to place myself on a rental horse for the ride to Eagle Bend." His plan had been to leave his trusted and treasured animal in the capable hands of J.D., the kid from the East, who, as it turned out, really did have a special way with the strong and graceful animals that contributed so much to their ability to survive in this rugged part of the country.
"Hoo-ah, Chris got one!" Buck crowed to his companions after hearing the familiar echo of Chris' Colt.
"That should leave only a couple of 'em left," Josiah reckoned.
"You two just stay down and stay quiet," Nathan Jackson warned. "These might be flesh wounds, but the heat of the day and the blood loss could still give ya trouble."
"Anybody heard Chris lately?" J.D., the youngest of their group, asked, "other than hearin' him shoot one of them?"
Larabee had stopped at the entrance to the notch to make sure all of his men were safe behind the jagged wall of rock. The stagecoach robbers realized their mistake and started sending a heavy burst of gunfire toward them. Chris was forced to take cover much closer to where the bullets were being fired from. He was separated from his men; his men didn't like that fact any more than they knew their leader would.
"No," Tanner replied. "But we can't yell for 'im or they'll have a better idea what ta shoot at."
"You know, Ezra, maybe you shoulda just taken the stage," Buck offered. "Maybe if ya hadn't had to get on a horse this morning you'd've got up on time."
"Thank you, Mistah Wilmington. That thought had not crossed my mind as I sit here being shot at by miscreants who Robbed. A. Stage," Ezra replied sarcastically as he looked over and once again saw J.D.'s hat sticking up above his protective rock. "Lord help me, J.D., would you keep your head down!" As Standish reached to push Dunne's head down once more, a shot rang out. The bullet hit the rock exactly where J.D.'s face had been. It tore a shard from the large boulder, which peeled off and flew straight up into Ezra's face.
"Shit," Vin Tanner said as he experienced before his eyes the horrible moment of impact. A gasp came from Ezra as he dropped his Remington and crumpled to the ground, pulling both hands up to his face.
"Good lord," he uttered softly. He hissed in a breath as the pain overwhelmed him.
"Nathan!" Tanner called, all previous worries about yelling forgotten in his haste to get the healer over to his wounded friend.
"Comin'." The seven, less Chris Larabee, were not separated by much space up in the ragged rocks that currently served as protection, and though their prime aim was to get these men and return the money the thieves had stolen to its rightful owners, Nathan Jackson's first concern now was that he had three injured men, for certain, and possibly a fourth. He couldn't dwell on Chris, though, because it sounded like he'd have his hands full with the southerner. And with Ezra down, and Buck and Josiah's current limited mobility, it meant they were at a decided disadvantage.
"Ezra?" Nathan asked as he tried to pull the card sharp's bloody hands from his face.
"Nate, I gotta. . ." Vin said, though he knew that he didn't need to finish. That he was torn about having to leave at all was plainly written on his face as he looked worriedly at his desperately hurt friend. Vin had witnessed the sheet of stone hit; he knew this was a bad injury.
"Go on," the healer said.
"Kid," Vin called to J.D., "we gotta get the rest of these fellers. Ez is gonna need to get back to town."
"Oh God, Vin. It's my fault."
"J.D.! We don't have time fer that right now. Come on. Nathan'll take care of Ezra."
"Okay," Jackson heard Dunne reply as the sheriff and their sharpshooter headed away, and likely toward added peril as they attempted to finish this up so that their injured could be tended to properly.
"Ezra, come on, now. I can't help if I can't see what's happened."
"It f. . .feels bad, M. . .Mistah Jackson," Ezra stammered as he held tight to his bleeding face. Standish was covering the entire right side of his face. . .his eye, his forehead, his cheek and his ear were completely enveloped by both hands, which were now dripping red from the steadily oozing injury. Ezra had been sitting up, his legs splayed out in front of him, but he moaned suddenly and started tipping to the right; Nathan caught him before he'd gone too far and leaned him back against the rock wall.
"Let's get ya layin' down." Standish complied, whether dutifully or sudden dizziness was the reason, Jackson could not say. The card sharp's breathing wasn't good, the hesitant gasping sounded like his friend was going into what Nathan had seen before, during the war. What he'd since learned about those events back then was that they were a sudden and potentially severe reaction to a terrible injury or emotional shock. It was the body reacting to these serious events. Nathan took his jacket off and laid it over his injured fellow lawman, and then pulled a loose rock over and set Ezra's legs up on it, as he'd learned to do from the medics during the war.
"Ezra, I need to pull your hands away. Gotta see the damage. I know it hurts but I can't help you if I can't see."
"Ah kn. . .know, N. . .Nathan. My apologies." Jackson could immediately feel that Standish was no longer fighting him. He pulled the hands down and saw nothing but red. The amount of blood was frightening to the healer. He'd experienced dealing with some bad injuries during the war, but all this blood, Ezra's eye. . .it was different, somehow, dealing with such an injury when it was someone who he'd come to care about. And despite their extreme differences, Nathan did care about this man, this man from the South who treated him, a former slave, with respect. Nathan knew that it shouldn't matter who it was he was treating, and he knew that he would do his best in every case. But this? This was bad. Nathan grabbed a cloth from his bag, the bag he always carried in case of circumstances just like this one, and quickly wet it from his canteen. He wiped the blood away, fearing what the action would reveal. The touch seemed to bring a more incessant noise from the gambler; he was obviously in extreme pain. It was rare for Standish to show any pain, any weakness. A jagged cut tore across Ezra's face from almost an inch above the arch of his right eyebrow all the way down across his eye and continuing in a deep, straight line from the outside corner of his eye directly across his cheek to just above his earlobe. The cut made a heavy groove into the inside of Ezra's ear.
"Ezra, I'm goin' to hold this down, put pressure on it, see if I can get the bleeding to stop."
"Mistah J. . .Jackson, ah fear ah am goin' to. . ." Standish didn't bother finishing as he pushed his fellow lawman aside and heaved the toast, jam and coffee that he'd had for breakfast in the only direction available to him. Nathan moved quickly to avoid getting hit, and moved equally swiftly to hold Ezra still as the sick man threatened to tip over, this time right into the small, messy puddle he'd just created over the hard red rock. Ezra's body continued purging long after anything was left. What little success Nathan may have had as he began to stanch the bleeding seemed for naught as the blood flowed anew due to Standish's workout. What skin was visible was terribly pale. Ezra had a half dozen rivulets of blood flowing down his face where the blood would pool in a particularly deep well along the line of the cut and then overflow down the card sharp's face. He looked ghoulish with the pallor, brought on by dizziness, concussion and sickness, combined with all that blood from the injury. The moaning had stopped; now just heavy breathing and a disconcerting trio of symptoms: the vomiting, trembling, as though from cold on this warm spring day. And the worst: no talking.
"Nate, you need a hand?" Josiah asked as he sat down beside the healer. He couldn't get closer to Ezra, though he would be closer to his injured friend soon if he had anything to say about it.
"You're supposed to be sittin' over there with Buck, restin' and drinkin' and not movin' about," Jackson chastised.
"Listen, Brother," Josiah ordered, putting his hand up and raising his head. Nathan Jackson always listened when Josiah Sanchez spoke with that tone. They heard silence.
"We got 'em?" Jackson asked. "Can ya help me get 'im away from this mess?"
"Seems so," Sanchez replied as he took Standish's upper body and Jackson lifted his legs and they moved the seriously injured man a few feet away.
"Everybody all right?" Chris Larabee asked as he stormed into the rock cover, his Colt in hand.
"No, Chris," Vin answered, his blue eyes vividly projecting his concern. He joined the group, followed by J.D. "Buck 'n Josiah got hurt, and Ezra. . ." Vin didn't continue as he pushed past Chris and made his way closer to where he could see the gambler now laying on the ground, Nathan hovering over him.
"They're all dead," J.D. said as he looked worriedly to his injured friends. "Wouldn't give up," he added disgustedly. "Here's the money," he finished, tossing the saddlebags to the ground. Chris grabbed the bags and followed Vin toward his injured men.
"Buck?" Chris asked.
"I'm okay. Just a scratch." He heard Nathan huff. "A deep scratch, but I'm okay. Josiah's the same. These fellas weren't real good shots." He looked sadly toward Ezra. "Just lucky."
"What happened?" Larabee asked, deep concern etched on his face as he watched Jackson work, heard Nathan's tender tones as he spoke to the injured gambler.
"Saw it happenin' right in front o' me and I couldn't do a damn thing to stop it," Vin lamented as he kicked his foot into some pebbles. They scattered, away from their friends. Tanner was mad, but he made sure he wouldn't be hurting his friends when that anger got away from him.
"M. . .Mistah Tannah," Ezra said softly, his voice wracked with pain, his accent thicker than normal.
"Yeah, Ezra?" Vin asked as he crouched down close to his hurting friend, displacing Josiah. Though he'd worried earlier about Ezra's sudden silence, that didn't mean Nathan really wanted him talking just now.
"Ezra, I don't want you talkin' and movin' around just yet," Nathan pleaded as he used his third piece of cloth to continue cleaning up the blood.
"Just. . .one m. . .m. . .oment, Mistah Jackson." Standish grabbed the healer's wrist and looked at him, his green eyes, the one blinking rapidly, non-stop tears dripping uncoordinated lines through the remaining blood, the effect doing nothing to convince the healer to let the hurt man continue talking. No, it was the eyes themselves that worked that magic. . .Jackson wouldn't need any of Ezra's fancy words. What Nathan knew he would need to do to help Ezra was going to be bad; he had to let Ezra have his say.
"Ez?" Vin asked.
"Do not. . .feel guilty. Th. . .There w. . .was no. . .nothing. . .to be done," Standish explained to Tanner. "Tell J.D. as w. . .well."
Vin placed his hand on Ezra's neck and clasped it warmly. He didn't agree with his friend on J.D. The kid hadn't been paying attention for Ezra to have to warn him more than once, but he also didn't want to worry Ezra about that right then. "I know, but I wish I coulda done somethin'."
"You have," Ezra replied wearily. Standish moaned with the intense pain.
"Vin, I need ya to help keep the bleeding cleaned up," Nathan ordered.
"Sure," Tanner responded as he squeezed his friend's shoulder and took the cloth from the healer.
"I can do that," Josiah offered.
"No. I need us to get outta here and to a water source. We need to git water boilin' as quick as we can and find a place to settle for a while."
"Can't we take him back home?" J.D. asked. Dunne couldn't hide the guilt pouring from him, from his open and honest face filled with sorrow to his arms clasped tight about his chest.
"No. I need to get working now. And Ezra needs a more comfortable and less dirty place to rest."
"Ah c. . .can return. . .to our d. . .dusty. . .m. . .metropolis," Standish said. Vin leaned over and spoke softly to their injured companion. Their conversation was hushed, private, though Jackson was close enough to hear what was being said. He smiled and nodded. Ezra finally spoke louder when he said, "Mistah Tanner has. . .convinced me that. . .it would be a good. . .night for sleepin' under the stars."
"Good," Nathan said. "I'll be right back. Vin, hold that down firm." Jackson got up and cocked his head for Chris, Buck and Josiah to follow him. J.D. stayed near Vin and Ezra, his big, brown eyes full of unshed tears of worry and fear for his friend, and guilt for his part in what happened. He looked toward Buck, who sent him a supportive, sympathetic smile.
"So, how is he?" Chris asked.
"That rock cut a nasty, jagged line across his face," Nathan started. He used his hand to demonstrate the next part on this own face. "It runs from just above his eye, across the top of his eyelid to the edge of his eye and then on deeper into his cheek all the way down into his ear. I gotta stitch it up now or he's gonna have a terrible scar."
"Nate, he's gonna have a scar anyhow, you can't work miracles," Buck explained.
"Ezra's gotta know he's in trouble here. He's not expectin' miracles, Nathan," Chris insisted.
"I know, Chris, but I can make it so's it ain't as bad. Might even hardly be visible after a while. I been practicin'," Jackson admitted. "And I got some compounds from Raine's people that I've seen results of that's as close to a miracle as I've ever seen."
"Brother, I know you've been practicing, but not on a real person. Shouldn't we get him over to Eagle Bend? Doc there's pretty good," Josiah suggested.
"No. The wound can't be stitched as close the longer we wait. And infection is a real problem, which is why we gotta get him away from all this rock and dirt. Closest water is Jewel Creek."
"Toward Eagle Bend," Larabee noted.
"Yeah. We gotta move, Chris."
"Buck and Josiah, I'm gonna be a while getting Ezra ready. And we'll be moving slow and easy." They had never been more grateful for Standish's ridiculous relationship with his horse. Chaucer would do anything for his master. Chris had ridden the horse once and had admired the smooth ride. "That will give you two a chance to get there, slow and easy yourselves."
"Nate, we're fine. . ."
"Listen to the man, Buck," Chris warned. "Get camp set up, get a fire goin', put water on to boil. Go to the big oak just this side of the bend."
"You got it ole pard," Buck responded. Wilmington knew better than to push Chris Larabee at a time like this.
"We'll follow as soon as Nathan has Ezra ready to go," Chris replied, giving his old friend a knowing, appreciative nod. Josiah and Buck gathered both pots that they carried and were on their horses and gone within minutes. "J.D.!" Chris called. The sheriff made his way quickly to Larabee and Jackson. "We need to move these bodies, put 'em all together at the entrance to the notch. Then you need to hightail it back home, send a wire to the Judge and Sheriff Stane and arrange for these bodies to be picked up." He explained the rest of the plan to the youngest member of their team as they started in on collecting all of the dead. Nathan returned to Ezra and Vin.
"Ezra, how ya doin'?" Nathan asked as he removed the most recent cloth to be used on Standish's bloody wound.
"Ah have been bettah. How do you believe ah am farin'?" Nathan was happy to see that the ragged breathing had eased, as had the trembling. Pain still oozed from every word Ezra spoke, but the healer knew that the gambler's calmer demeanor had everything to do with the vicinity of the former bounty hunter. Jackson had been grateful when Tanner had barged through earlier. Josiah Sanchez was a capable assistant, except where Ezra Standish was concerned. When it was their resident card sharp who was hurt, Josiah's soothing ways could turn downright smothering. Nathan knew he needed to keep his patient calm; Josiah in full-on worry mode would have manifested exactly the opposite, causing Ezra to stress more than he already was.
"Here's what we need to do," Jackson said as he explained the plan to get them to the creek, and how he would need to temporarily bind the wound with damp cloths over a healing, moisture-laden poultice. He explained that the pain would be pretty bad, the bandage tight and uncomfortable.
"How wonderful," Ezra noted dryly.
"I'll heat up some tea that'll help some with the pain."
"Mistah Jackson, are you intendin' to cure me or kill me?" This comment held more light than dark from the Southerner. Nathan saw it as a good sign.
"Don't let Ez fool ya, Nathan. He's always tellin' me how much he likes your brews," Vin joked, trying to keep his friend occupied as their healer went to work.
"And I thought it was just the written language with which you required assistance." Standish paused, realizing immediately how unkind the jibe was. When Mary Travis had found her time taken up more and more by the newspaper, her son's more regular presence in Four Corners, and other town and territory business, Ezra had stepped in and taken over tutoring the tracker. Vin had been an excellent student. How could Ezra have said such a thing to such a fine man? To a friend?
"Mistah Tanner, my apologies. I don't know. . ."
Vin placed his left hand on Ezra's neck, massaging it carefully, warmly, and then placed his other hand on the con man's chest. "Don't go worryin' about it. What is it you said once to me about Chris? That sometimes his pain over losin' his family left him with no way to handle the everyday stuff. You said somethin' about Chris not bein' able to sort through all of the stuff life was throwin' at him when it took every bit of his energy to just get through the day without thinkin' on what he'd lost. You said you were willin' to take the brunt of Chris flyin' off the handle if it meant he could make it to the next day." Nathan looked at Vin, their eyes catching. Nathan's shocked look was returned by Vin's compassionate, understanding one. "Can't see how you'd have any o' them 'filters' like you called 'em workin' right now, Ezra. Don't you worry, I can handle whatever ya need to say."
"Good lord. Mistah Jackson, could you please tell Mistah Tanner that I am not dyin'?" No immediate answer troubled the gambler. "Mistah Jackson?"
"He's not dyin', Vin," Nathan answered, pre-occupied with other things, and still somewhat in shock at what Vin had said. Jackson was forever surprised, and aggravated, at both the depth of Ezra Standish's compassion, and at how stingy the man was at allowing others to see that side of him. "Ezra, drink this. All of it."
Tanner helped Standish drink the gritty, bitter tea. "Miserable," Ezra noted, followed by, "Thank you, Vin," as he handed the cup over to his friend. Vin patted Ezra's chest, his way of saying that he understood that the 'thank you' was for more than helping him with the beverage.
"Ezra, just lay back and relax. We're gonna get started in a minute." Jackson took a closer look at the gash and the damage at the eye and the deepest cut through Ezra's cheek. "Can you see okay outta your eye?"
"It's hard to say. It won't stop tearin' up. Everything's blurry."
"Does your eye hurt?"
"At the lid and the corner?" Ezra had been lucky that his eye had been closed, and that the largest chunk of the rock hit his cheek and the side of his face at its thickest part. The damage that the giant sliver of stone had done to the tender skin was severe, though the eyelid, it seemed, was a quick healing area. Nathan was just grateful that this freak occurrence hadn't taken his friend's sight in that eye. Or worse.
"Yes. It stings at the corner. It's an incessant throbbin' all over. I cannot tell if it's from the injury or just the force of the rock. . ." Talking became impossible as the southerner moaned, the pain flowing to a crescendo, and then back to just barely tolerable once more. Tanner kept a soothing massage going on the injured man's neck throughout the spasm of pain.
"You probably got at least a mild concussion." Jackson took a longer look at the eye, the cheek and the ear, where blood had pooled. "Vin, get me a real wet cloth and a dry one. Gotta get this blood outta Ezra's ear."
"Concussion and blood in my ear. Lovely." Ezra took a steadying breath, and then another as the nasty tasting tea mixed with his already unsettled stomach and threatened another bout of nausea. He would do everything in his power to avoid that again.
"The blood is just gatherin' there. We'll get it out." Vin quickly returned and Nathan gently cleaned out the ear. "Okay, give me a few minutes to get the poultice together," Nathan said as he stood up and headed to talk to Chris.
"H. . .How does. . .I mean to s. . .say. . .how does it appear?" Standish asked.
"Aw, Ez, don't go worryin' 'bout that. Nathan's got a plan, he thinks he can get ya stitched up good."
"Pretty bad, then?"
"Ya gotta think positive."
"Mistah Tanner, I am ever a proponent of positive thinking. I just do not believe that in this particular instance, that is a winning hand." Ezra raised his right hand up to his face. Tanner stopped the motion. "It feels to be a crevasse even our talented healer cannot breach."
"If yer sayin' you don't think Nathan can help ya, he thinks he can. And I'm on his side, and so's everybody else. Yer the only one who's bettin' against him."
"Mah instinct tells me. . ."
"Ezra, I'm tellin' ya that you have all of us who will be here for you no matter what happens. You have friends, you know that, right? And Nate, well, I ain't never seen him look more determined since I met him."
"Then I shall not, as you say, bet against him." Standish had to hope that good luck and great talent would grace the healer's efforts just as lady luck and polished skills had done the trick for him at the poker table. The gambler yawned, which brought on a pained groan followed by a harsh gasp and then quick breathing, the stretching of the wound nearly knocking him unconscious with the severity of the pain. He tried to breathe through the pain as he rolled towards Vin, seeking comfort. Vin held his wrist, and Ezra turned his hand and clasped tight to the tracker's. And Tanner held on.
"Take it easy, Ez," Vin said. He turned his head to look for Nathan, who was rushing their way.
"Damn. Sorry, Ezra. I gave you some stronger tea. I was hopin' it would get you sleepin' quicker."
"Ah thought it tasted especially vile. Please don't apologize. I feel . . .that I am. . .headin' into. . .the arms of. . .Morpheus any. . ." Ezra's hand went slack in Vin's.
"He's asleep," Vin said softly. "Jesus, Nathan. His face," Tanner pleaded.
"I know. It's bad. But I been workin' on using this real thin stitchin' thread. Got my kit with me, just dumb luck that I did. Remember I was goin' to head to Doc Milburn last week and work with him for a few days but I had to cancel? Never got around to pullin' my stuff out of my bag. And I got the iodine in there, too, to sterilize the thread. Doc had sent me the sutures and this real thin needle to practice with. Got plenty of carbolic with all our kits," though his intent was to use some of the more natural healing methods he'd learned from the Seminole tribe.
"Damn lucky," Vin said, his blue eyes big and reflecting the worry that Nathan clearly still felt, despite his confidence that he could save Ezra the torture of a horrible scar. Tanner doubted that the gambler would stay around long if he ended up scarred like that. "Iodine?"
"Yeah, it's better for sterilizing the needles and sut. . .the thread." Jackson didn't have the time to give Tanner the whole story on the new discovery of iodine's power, despite Vin's keen curiosity, which was obvious even through the worry. "We got to get that poultice on and then bind his face real good. Hope he stays asleep while I work. It ain't gonna be good for him if he wakes for that."
"We almost ready?"
"Then let's do it."
Ezra's slumber made Nathan's job of deep cleaning the wound easier, as well as smoothing the way for wrapping it in the poultice and bandage. Getting him up on his horse proved more complicated. Chaucer sensed the trouble his owner was in, and was as well-behaved as any of them had ever seen. Not that he wasn't a good horse: he was truly an amazing animal, and did things that none of them would have believed if they'd only heard about them. But just now, the equine's only job was to stand still as Chris, Nathan and J.D. positioned the ailing man up in front of Vin, already in place, on Ezra's trusted mount. Standish remained deeply asleep as they headed toward Eagle Bend. Dunne headed in the opposite direction, riding hard in order to get back with his friends as quickly as possible. There was no guarantee that the bodies they left at the notch wouldn't be savaged by predators by the time someone returned for them, but it was daytime and a hot day, too. There was some hope, but just in case the bodies ended up as carrion, J.D. had been told to bring shovels and have the remains buried, and to return with a wagon for the gambler.
The ride to Jewel Creek with Ezra had been slow. Though it'd nearly driven Chris insane, Nathan had insisted on the deliberate pace in order to prevent any jostling to his patient. It was a bright, hot day in the high desert, and moving this slowly kept them in the scorching sun far too long for Chris Larabee's taste. It was clear to the two fully-cognizant members of their party that Larabee was using all of his willpower to stay calm for Standish's sake. Vin Tanner had chosen to remain mute throughout the journey. Ezra was soundly asleep and the Texan aimed to keep him that way. Nathan said that they would be dosing him again before he started stitching. At the moment, the healer held the lead, checking for rocks or ruts that might cause Chaucer difficulty in keeping his feet. Jackson had noted that Ezra could use as much sleep as he could get. Part of what was keeping Standish out, the healer figured, was some lingering effects of the shock he'd been through, along with the hard hit to the head. Though most people figured that a gambler and a con man's loss of his hands, his eyesight, might be the worst thing for a man like that to deal with, those who knew Ezra Standish well knew that he suffered many demons. He was always fighting back his upbringing, a past where he praised and flaunted the skills he'd learned at the feet of his grifter mother, but a personal history for which he now held at least a modicum of regret and shame. Ezra fought the end results of how he'd been raised every day that he continued to call Four Corners home, the influence of this place and these people both confusing and comforting to a man who'd never really had a place to call home. Though some deemed the fancy clothes and outward manifestations of 'good southern breeding', the impeccable manners and fastidious grooming as over-the-top or out of place – the appellation 'dandy' thrown his way in a routinely derogatory manner – to the man himself, as a measure of his true worth, all of these things were important to his self-image. There was no question, at least for the people who knew him well, that being left with a scar, a scar similar to the one that marred the face of someone like Top Hat Bob Spikes, had the potential to send Standish on a similar spiral that had twisted Spikes into the evil man he had become. These men, these six men who had grown to know Ezra Standish so well, would do everything in their power to keep the man whole, this man whose worth was far more evident than just what was seen on the outside, even if the man himself had yet to figure that out for himself.
Buck and Josiah stood as they saw their friends approach. It was just beyond high noon, and the big oak tree was doing its job, providing cool shade along the banks of the creek on this very hot late spring day. The late thaw had left water abundant in the creek. A fire blazed near the meandering water's flow, outside the tree's canopy, with two kettles set on it making their way to a boil. The sky shone brilliantly, blue and clear. Their luck had been a miserable mix of good and bad this day; it was an unfortunate day indeed when seven dead had been the good luck part.
"We got a spot all set up for you under the tree," Buck said to Nathan. "How's he doin'?"
"Been sleepin' sound," the healer answered shortly. "Let's get him down. Chris, I want you to get down, let Ezra lay up against ya, in case he wakes. I'm goin' to need to keep movin' once I start. Vin, you stay, keep him calm if he stirs too much." Jackson looked to Buck and Josiah. "You two okay to keep the hot water comin', boil and clean the bandages?"
"And the cool water to keep you going," Josiah noted as he canted his head toward the fresh, clear water of the full creek. "Anything you need, Brother, to help our brother," Josiah finished.
"J.D. head back to town?" Buck asked.
"Yeah," Chris answered. "He's contacting the Judge, the sheriff, and arranging for the bodies to be picked up. . .or buried." Buck and Josiah nodded knowingly. "He'll bring a wagon for Ezra, and you two, and the undertaker will have his own wagon for the dead." Chris took a quick drink from his canteen and made his way out of the saddle. "I got the money," he said, his eyes moving up toward the saddlebags on Pony. "Didn't want the kid a target out there all by himself," he continued as he stepped over to Chaucer and helped Vin and Nathan get the boneless Ezra down.
Standish moaned, "Wha. . ." he mumbled, disoriented by the bandages that currently covered the entire right side of his face and wrapped around his head in order to keep them in place. The hands touching him everywhere were disconcerting as well, but it was clear what held the most interest to the sleep-fogged, herbally-drugged mind. He raised his hand to his face, but Vin caught the hand before he could cause any harm.
"Yer fine, Ezra. We gotcha. Ya got hurt, remember?" Vin asked as he quickly dismounted Standish's steady horse, Chaucer remaining on his best behavior, sensing his owner's incapacity and all of the concern from these other men. Buck took the horses over to the creek for a well deserved drink, and then led them to the far side of the grand old oak, loosened the cinches and removed all of the saddles as Josiah continued to boil cloths for the work that lay ahead. They were likely to be here for a while. Chris and Nathan carried their injured friend to the blankets that had been laid out for that purpose. Vin ran up ahead, removing his buckskin coat and quickly lay down where Nathan had instructed Chris to be.
"Vin," Chris started.
"Let me do this, cowboy. He trusts me." He needs me Vin chose to keep to himself. Tanner had empathized with Standish from the first time he'd learned any details about his life with Maude. Living the itinerant life without a mother who cared wasn't much different from the life Vin had led since his own mother's death. He may not have known the word 'empathize' before he met Ezra, but its definition held deep meaning to the Texan now that he did.
Larabee looked into Tanner's big blue eyes, full of worry. . .and certainty. Ezra was their skittish colt, no doubt about it, even though with Vin's past it was a toss-up as to which one might be gone from their midst on any given day. These two men had formed a special bond, much as they all had in varying degrees amongst themselves. Chris really didn't care who did what so long as they got started and Nathan could work the magic that he seemed convinced that he could achieve.
Nearly three hours later, Nathan Jackson had finished. It had seemed an eternity to each man who watched or participated in the effort to assist the healer. And for Chris Larabee, who held tight to their injured comrade and felt each twitch and shudder Ezra Standish experienced. . .those hours had bordered on pure hell. Though he'd remained mostly unconscious, there had been moments when the pain had Standish close to wakefulness. Between the deep cleaning and the less-generous-than-normal amount of carbolic, and in spite of the more soothing balms from their Indian neighbors, it had been near-torture for the gambler – and for his friends.
Ezra's face was currently lightly covered with a damp cloth. The cloth hid a frightfully obvious line of stitches across the gambler's face. The sutures themselves were currently hidden under another poultice. Despite Vin's desire to be there for his friend, Nathan had needed him for a more desperate purpose: he didn't have one of the plants he really required in order to complete the compound for the healing dressing. Tanner would be the one who would find the wild plant most readily of them all, besides Nathan himself, and the healer also knew that Vin really hadn't been ready to deal with Ezra's pain, at least not so up close and personal. Jackson had seen it in the tracker's eyes. It had worked out well, in the end, with Vin riding up just minutes before Nathan had finished. He quickly reminded Vin and Josiah of the details of mixing the ingredients together, having gone over it once earlier with Sanchez in order to speed things along in case Tanner returned later than expected.
"He'll be comin' to soon. Need to get more tea in him. He don't need to be feelin' that kind of pain, not if I can help it," Nathan warned. The healer was exhausted, drenched in sweat, his shoulders sagging as he leaned up against the tree. He kept his eyes on his patient the entire time he spoke, and continued to as his compatriots answered.
"Nate, what's he gonna need, b'sides the tea?" Josiah asked. "You should lie down and rest," he added. "Get your strength back."
"Get somethin' to eat, too," Buck added.
"Just the tea," Jackson replied. "He needs to stay still. The tea should knock him out. . .let's make it real strong, Josiah."
"Whatever you say, Nate."
"He's stubborn, might try gettin' up anyway," Vin noted as he handed a plate of food to the healer.
"He's done it before," Chris said as he took a mouthful of beans.
Nathan nodded. "I know. But you gotta keep him quiet if he wakes, don't let him move or touch where I stitched him. Can't risk opening up or infecting the wounds." Jackson shook his head and looked around, ignoring the food as the plate now rested on his thigh. They'd been lucky that they were near this oasis in between Four Corners and Eagle Bend. The creek was lush along its bank with cooling grasses and other vegetation, the large oak and a few cottonwoods provided shade and kept the temperature down, unless you were the man on the hot seat, as Nathan had been, and were trying to affect a miracle out in the middle of nowhere.
Normally, on a day like this one, with cloudless blue skies and temperatures well below the miserable summer heat to come, each one of the seven would have been first in line to perform their appointed rounds in and around Four Corners. This kind of weather was rare for their neck of the woods. The cold of winter, with its stark, gray skies, and unforgiving snowfalls, seemed so often to give way to the unforgiving dry dust of summer. This day might end up as the only day of it, but it seemed that spring had decided to make an appearance. It was still hot, but bearable, Nathan Jackson's sweat-soaked clothes not the true measure of the temperate day.
"Go wash up at the creek, Nathan," Vin said as he took the tin plate from his friend. He handed the tired man his extra shirt from the former slave's saddlebag, a cloth. . .and a bar of soap. "Don't think Ezra'll mind." Vin smiled a shy, sad smile. "We'll have something fresher fer ya ta eat when ya come back."
"Thanks, Vin." Vin, Chris, Josiah and Buck watched as the tall Negro loped tiredly to the creek's edge.
"He did a damned fine job," Josiah commented. The others nodded solemnly. "Said that Ezra's gonna need to stay calm and quiet for some time."
"That'll be the real miracle," Buck said with warm humor and a sad smile of his own as he looked toward his injured fellow lawman. "Gonna take a lot o' doin'."
"Then let's make sure it gets done," Chris said, finishing his now cold beans as he stood, observing their camp. He handed the plate to Buck. "I'm gonna go sit with him." He looked to Josiah. "Make sure that tea's ready now. He could wake up any time."
"It's steepin' near the fire. It's ready whenever Ezra is."
"Ezra's never ready for that horse piss," Buck said.
"As we have all learned far too often in the time we've know Ezra, he complains about it but he always has the sense to take his medicine," Josiah said, his soothing baritone helping to calm frayed nerves. "He knows that Nate is only doing what's best for all of us."
This time, what Ezra had endured. . .the man had been in pain, even though it manifested as mostly scattered mutterings and moans from a mostly unconscious state. But now the moans sounded more awake, and Ezra's hands fisted in the grass. Chris called for Vin and both men held one of the con man's hands as Ezra started to wake.
"Josiah," Chris called.
"Coming," the big man answered as he moved swiftly to their injured friend's side, the strong tea hot and ready to drink. He handed the mug to Vin.
"Chris, raise his head some," Vin said. Larabee followed the order, and Tanner talked softly to Standish, coaxing the man to finish the noxious drink. Ezra had been fairly pliable in regard to drinking the murky, gritty tea, but he'd also shown signs of being in some serious pain. As soon as Vin turned to give the cup back to Josiah, he felt Ezra's strong grip on his forearm. "Lord", he whispered, but soon the death grip he'd had on his friends eased and he fell to sleep. Chris and Vin exchanged concerned glances.
"Nate said he would be hurtin'," Chris allowed.
"I know," Vin replied. His eyes blinked as the tears he'd tried valiantly to hold back fell down his cheeks. "This ain't right," he said, his raised voice showing his anger. He looked down at Ezra, not wanting to wake his hurt friend. He looked away, put his head down and shook it back and forth. He looked out toward the scarred, rough land that they called home and asked pleadingly, "Chris, what chance does he have, really?"
"Vin, Nathan. . ."
"I know what Nathan said," the Texan returned in a near whisper. He watched Ezra as he slept, the latest dose of the strong tea doing its work. "Have you ever seen anyone with an injury like this that didn't come away scarred from it?"
"Vin, Nathan is sure that he's done the best. . ."
"I ain't sayin' he ain't done his best. I know he did. I'm just. . ." the big, sad blue eyes said the rest. Chris didn't need to hear Vin say any more. They were all thinking the same thing, that Nathan had done his best, that he'd had to work fast, that the real hope was that this surgery in the desert would turn out better than any of them could ever hope or pray that it would, because none of them had ever seen anything like this turn out well. Chris knew that Tanner was torn, because so was Larabee.
"We ain't got control over this, Vin. We can only do what we can. We can hope that Nathan did what he thinks he could. We can help in every way we can, whether it's keepin' him calm, no matter how crotchety he gets, 'cause he's goin' to be one helluva pain in the ass when he starts feelin' better. And if it don't turn out as good as we all hope, then we're there for him, make sure he knows that not a damn thing has changed that's important about how we think about him. He's one of us and that's all the hell there is to that. So, I suggest you get over. . .whatever the hell this is that you're feeling and just be his friend."
A flush came to Vin's cheeks, his embarrassment at having to be set straight in such a way obvious. Chris was his best friend, and how Chris saw him was important to the tracker. Vin's relationship with Ezra was something different. Whereas he saw Chris as an authority within their group, personally, Vin felt on completely equal footing with the former gunslinger. And even Larabee's authority over him only went so far; Tanner was his own man with his own opinions on how to deal with things in this wild and dangerous world. But with Ezra, there was so much more of a familiar, almost familial connection. Whereas he and Chris were more brothers-in-arms, he and Ezra seemed more like brothers, period. The thought of the pain that Ezra had already suffered this day, and the hurt that this recovery would cause his brother, pained Vin to his very soul. But Chris was right, he needed to get himself together. Ezra needed him.
Hours later, four lawmen of Four Corners, two of them hurt, watched over their far more seriously injured friend as their healer slept. Vin Tanner would be heading out soon to hunt up some dinner, the time of day and year giving him a good shot at some wild game of some sort. He'd seen some wild onions and some cactus that he was sure Chris could work into a decent stew. They would be spending the night, of that they were all certain. Even if J.D. returned this night with a wagon, Nathan had already decreed that they would not be moving Ezra for any purpose other than to allow the man to relieve himself, and even for that, he would not be allowed to go very far.
The sun was setting slowly, the late spring day remaining light for a long time. The smoky amber cast of the late day sun mixed with the myriad colors of rock and dried grasses in the distance to cast a warm glow over their camp. The green grass in their immediate area had already begun to cool the camp, causing Nathan to stir and then rise, taking his blanket over to his sleeping patient and wrapping him, his blanket the second one now enveloping the injured card sharp. Ezra had stayed asleep a long time, and it was beginning to worry the medical man. He didn't want to ease up on the pain-relieving effects that the tea provided, but he also knew that if Ezra had taken too hard of a hit to the head when he'd been cut so badly by the sheer rock, that he wasn't doing Standish any favors by keeping him asleep and not being able to check him for normal brain responses.
As he was thinking just that, he heard a weak utterance from the gambler. "Ezra?" he asked softly as he kneeled in front of his friend.
"Nath. . ." the injured man started, but he coughed, causing a soft groan as the pain of the muscle movement in his face hit.
"Yeah, it's me," Jackson said as he took the cup of water that Buck offered. "I'm gonna help you sit up a bit so you can get a drink." The effort took all of the wind out of the southerner. He breathed deeply, trying to recover his strength. He blinked and moved his head slightly so that his one uncovered eye could take in his surroundings. He shut his eyes. . .eye. . .as dizziness came on from the movement, a wave of heat surrounding him, making him feel so terribly weak. He sat still for a minute or so and then opened his eyes again. Nathan and Buck could easily read the confusion on Ezra's face.
"Wh. . .Where are we?"
"Jewel Creek. We stopped here so I could take care of that. . .your face," Nathan said, deciding at the last minute that saying the word cut didn't do the wound justice, and that anything else would only serve to upset his patient. "Do you remember your name?"
"Am I an imbecile? Of course I know my name." Standish hissed as the talking caused his face to stretch the stitches. He moaned at the pain.
"You gonna tell me?" Nathan continued, undaunted by the combative lawman.
"Ezra P. Standish."
"Good," the healer replied with an affectionate smile. "Do you know what happened? And keep your answers short. Those stitches don't need any workout from your lip."
"Your bedside manner. . ."
"Never mind that. Answer the question."
"I had hoped that perchance it had been a dream. . .a nightmare," Ezra added as he lifted his hand up to his face. "That what I remembered was. . .not real."
"Nah, don't do that," Nathan said as he intercepted the hand. "Don't touch it. You have over sixty stitches on your face. You need to leave it alone, let it heal," he noted. "How bad is the pain?"
"So. Very real?"
"Afraid so. The pain?"
"Mistah Jackson, could I bother you for another drink of water?"
"Yeah. I want you to drink as much as you can while you're awake." He took the filled cup back from Buck and helped Ezra to drink some more.
"Am I going back to sleep?" Standish asked as he took a long drink of the cool creek water.
"'Fraid so, Ezra." Josiah's voice, though Ezra couldn't see him, with his right side completely covered in bandages, and Nathan squatting before him in the foreground. "Here you go, Nathan," the preacher said as he handed the cup of tea to the healer.
"Nathan, I feel that I will be asleep again any moment. Must I imbibe this vile concoction?" Jackson smiled. It was clear that whatever head injury he had suffered, it had not affected the man's extensive vocabulary. . .or his inclination to use it.
"Before I answer that, you need to answer my question. How bad is the pain?"
Nathan really hadn't needed an answer. It was clear from the way Ezra spoke, from the weakness in his voice, the trembling hand as he held the cup, the pale skin and the pain-glazed eye and bruised puffiness under it that the man was hurting. Badly. It wouldn't have surprised Jackson if Standish chose to answer less than truthfully. But again, as in so many times before, Ezra Standish surprised once more.
"Mistah Jackson, the pain is. . .dreadful. But worse is the feel of. . .of everything going on. . .here," he continued, waving his hand up close to his face. Nathan grabbed it, worried that his friend would reach for his face in spite of the warning to not touch. "The pressure, the pull, is uncomfortable, to say the least. I keep wondering how what I feel could possibly mean anything good."
And if that wasn't a good enough reason to put the man back to sleep, then a good reason did not exist.
"It's not goin' to feel good for a long time, Ezra. But I done a good job for ya, Ez. I think you'll be pleased. At least, I hope. . ."
"Mistah Jackson, I am quite sure you performed splendidly. I do not blame you for how this turns out."
"Ezra," Chris Larabee said as he kneeled on the left side of the gambler, assuring him that Standish could see him with his left eye. "You're gonna drink Nate's tea, and you're gonna heal just fine. Ya hear me?"
"Ezra, just agree with him. I don't want you talking too much," Nathan pleaded.
"Far be it for me to argue with you, Mistah Larabee. However, have you seen Mistah Jackson perform this kind of facial surgery before? I do not doubt that he has done the very best that he could do. It is not in his nature to do anything other than his best. But despite all evidence to the contrary, I am a realist about these things. And I certainly do not ascribe to the notion of miracles that Mistah Sanchez is so fond of preaching about."
"Neither do I, Ez." Chris had two very good reasons to no longer believe in miracles. "But I think that you should just remember that we all don't care if you end up with a little scar. Adds character. You're still one of us, and that you are alive and will be okay is all that matters to us. That you still can ride with us, once you're fully healed, that's the important thing."
"Mistah Larabee. . ."
"Don't Mistah Larabee me, Ezra," Chris countered with his best Ezra accent. The shocked look on Standish's face almost had the leader of the seven snorting laughter. But there wasn't anything to laugh at, not really. He took the cup of medicinal tea from Nathan. "Drink this." Ezra did as he was ordered. "Good. You need to sleep. You've been through something here, Ez. And I know you're thinking all kinds of dumb stuff, like when you're gonna be able to get on your horse and leave. I'm tellin' ya right now, you ain't doin' that. You promised me you'd never run out on me again, and I'm holdin' you to your word."
Ezra's eyelids had grown heavy, even before he'd imbibed the tea. "But. . ." started, the mostly empty cup tipping precariously from the gambler's hand.
"No buts. Sleep. We'll talk more later."
Ezra slept through dinner, which had turned to a late evening affair. Vin had brought back two sizable pheasants and two rabbits: a veritable feast. And Chris had happily worked it all into an aromatic stew, including all the wild herbs and onions and cactus that Tanner had brought back. The tracker had assured the chef more than once that everything he had harvested was edible and flavorful and would not give them all belly aches later on.
"Ez's sure gonna be sorry he missed havin' this rabbit," Buck joked as he took another mouthful.
"It's damned tasty, cowboy," Vin noted. Their resident southerner was not a fan of rabbit.
"Hello the camp!" they heard called, the rider coming from the direction of Eagle Bend. All save Standish and Jackson stood and drew their weapons.
"Come in slow," Larabee warned. "Who are you?"
"Deputy Lonergan. Sheriff sent me and Duff here to check things out."
"Things?" Josiah asked, his tone one of chilly warning.
"Yeah. Heard that you boys needed some help."
"Help?" Buck queried. He noticed Vin move towards his mare's leg, which lay next to his bedroll, which was positioned up against Ezra's.
"Nah, I wouldn't do that, Scruffy," 'Duff' said as he spoke to Vin but aimed his weapon directly at Ezra. "Figure that one must be hurtin' if he ain't got up yet. So if you don't want 'im worse than hurt, you'll drop your weapons." Just as he finished talking, two more men joined them. "Check around for the money, Frank," he said to one of them as he looked back to Chris, Buck, Vin and Josiah. Nathan was somewhere hidden in the shadow of the tree, laying down behind Ezra. He'd not been up long from his rest and was preparing another compound but managed to get hidden before he'd been seen.
"I said drop your weapons." He'd barely gotten the last word out when a bullet hit him dead center of his forehead. Seconds after, 'Deputy' Lonergan had a knife in his chest. Both men were dead before they hit the ground.
"Frank. . ." Josiah started and then added, "and your friend. If you want to be just like your other friends, then I suggest you hold tight to your guns. If you want to live," he continued, giving him that look that made Sanchez appear just this side of crazy, "then I think tossing them over there to Mr. Wilmington would be a real fine idea." The two men looked around, not knowing which one was Mr. Wilmington.
"That would be me," Buck volunteered, hi s rifle pointed at one man's head, Chris's gun pointed at the other one's chest. Both men discarded their weapons as though their hands were being branded by them. Chris and Buck dragged the men from their horses and hog-tied them both.
"Was that first shot from Ezra?" Vin asked as he rushed over to their injured friend.
"Ezra, y'all right?" Nathan asked. Standish was tipped over, his right arm, shaking though it was, the only thing, precarious as it was, keeping his face from planting into the ground. "Ezra?" Nathan asked more earnestly as he grabbed the gambler at his shoulders and eased him back on to his bedroll.
"Was this interlude entirely necessary? Could we not have just gotten back to our charming hamlet without all of this," he waved his left hand about listlessly, "superfluous and need I say, outrageous excitement?" The speech left the card sharp with little energy; he wisely chose breathing over talking for the next while. And though Standish clearly was sapped of energy, the little speech by their seriously injured fellow lawman acted as a lightning rod to reinvigorate the rest of them. They exchanged pleased glances, but Nathan remained all business.
"Don't know, Ezra. Covering's off. Poultice is ruined. Powder from the gun ain't doin' ya no favors," the healer rambled as he tended to his patient. "Need to clean it. . ."
"No," Ezra finally said with whispery firmness.
"Yes. It's the only way to be sure that no gunpowder got in."
"Mistah Jackson," Ezra sighed, not really ready to speak again, but not willing to give in either, "there feels to be an inch thick of. . .disgusting all over my face. I don't think even the most clever bacterium would make its way through," he insisted.
"It ain't an inch thick and it needs changin'. I did not work so hard to let some low-life criminals – or you – ruin it."
"Nathan. . ." Ezra tried again.
"No, Ezra. Do you want a chance for your face to heal or don't you? Now, you can have some tea to relax you and we can get started and we can get it over with, or you can take the tea and we'll wait until you're asleep, or you can stay awake through the whole thing and not take anything for the pain. It makes no difference to me. But we are doin' this."
Ezra's eyes blazed with anger, but all he said was, "Then start now." Nathan looked back at his exasperating patient.
"Now hold on," Chris said. "Take some tea."
"No. I want this done. I wish to sleep unaided." Jackson snorted as he shook his head. There was no way Standish would be able to sleep without something to knock down some of the pain, especially if he remained stubborn and allowed Nathan to start right then. Vin stepped past Nathan, gave the healer a glare, and sat down next to his hurting friend.
"Ez, you were out for the cleanings before, but I'm tellin' ya as a friend, ya need to take the tea."
"Mistah Tanner, the wound is now stitched, our healer has most assuredly performed remarkable work, as he is wont to do. I feel. . ."
"Ez," Vin said as he leaned in closer. The remainder of the conversation was held in hushed tones. Tanner occasionally leaned down to see better into Ezra's uncovered left eye, Standish at once nodding and then shaking his head, always gingerly in deference to the extreme discomfort he still felt over the right side of his face, and from the pounding, persistent headache. Vin's raised 'God damn it!' was followed not too much later by Ezra's softly pleaded 'Why can you not understand my wishes?' The other four waited patiently, hopeful that Tanner would win this stand-off; none of them wanted to witness Ezra suffer any more than he already had. The discussion continued, Vin talking more than normal, hoping that he was speaking well-enough the gambler's mind so that Ezra would not have to expend his own dwindling reserves to do so. Long minutes passed, and then Tanner dropped his very own ace of spades into the conversation.
"Do it fer me?" They'd all heard the plea, but couldn't hear the rest, the part where Vin admitted how much it hurt him to see Ezra hurting so much, that it seemed a terrible waste of energy to suffer pain when you had a reasonable choice in front of you. The others who waited all knew Ezra Standish well enough to know what the answer would be. Despite how much he insisted on presenting a carefree though reserved front, Ezra did care about people, and hated to see any suffering, especially the suffering of women, children, animals, and these men that he had grown so fond of these last couple of years. A heavy sigh was followed by a short, tired nod of assent.
"Josiah?" Vin asked. The preacher walked up with the cup of tea. He handed it to the tracker and grabbed Vin's shoulder, the warm clasp of silent gratitude evident in the touch. Ezra drank the bitter brew and closed his eyes. So tired. Tired of arguing, tired of not being allowed the right to decide for himself, tired of sustaining injuries at the hands of miscreants, tired of feeling it was his job, his. . .responsibility, to take a bullet – or a flying piece of rock – so that the innocents the seven of them protected didn't have to. When had he started to feel that way? He knew that when he stopped hurting so badly and could think clearly he would realize that he wasn't tired of these things at all, not really. He was certainly not tired of the good feeling he held in the pit of his stomach or in his heart when he knew he was responsible for saving a life or someone's livelihood. Right now, though, he was tired of all of these things, and so very tired of this pain, and tired of the worry that he wouldn't be the same man after this injury that he had been before.
His friends watched as Ezra's breathing, which had seemed disturbed, at minimum when he'd first closed his eyes, finally became the even breathing of sleep. They all heaved a collective sigh of relief. . .and got to work.
Two months later, Ezra Standish was primed to shoot someone. Any one of his law enforcement brethren would do, but most assuredly, Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner were in competition to be at the top of the list.
Ezra had taken Nathan's words to heart; he hadn't wanted to jeopardize his recovery or chances that Jackson's work could be the miracle that he so hoped that it was. Thus, he suffered the poultices that kept him abed for long hours of the day. Eventually the pain became tolerable without the intolerable added pain of having to drink the healer's teas; the gambler saw that as the only true blessing he'd had bestowed upon him through the entire affair. Well, that wasn't altogether true. Despite wanting to shoot one of them, he had found that the brotherhood he shared with these men was far deeper than he realized. Though he'd begun to feel smothered by them - Vin in particular seemed to be happily earning the target on his forhead - at the same time he yearned for their time and attention. He didn't understand it and he wasn't convinced it was particularly healthy to feel the way he felt. He was smart enough to know that it was his own emotions that were causing the disconnect, the confusion. He would give it time, the same kind of healing that Nathan kept telling him his scar would need, though he wasn't convinced there would be success on that front, either.
His recuperation was generally a success. He had managed to avoid infection, but those first weeks were filled with pain and frustration and exhaustion. Standish couldn't understand how laying in bed for all of Nathan's treatments didn't give him enough energy to stay awake past nine o'clock, not that he had any desire to show his face to anyone other than his closest associates. His face. . .it certainly looked better than it had any right to look, but the scar was still so obvious. Standish knew that his compatriots were worried about him. He'd spent little time anywhere other than his own room, Nathan's clinic, and a table in a dark corner of the saloon, but only for an occasional drink with one or more of the other seven. Once anyone else joined them, he would excuse himself and head to his room.
Ezra's enthusiasm for the life that he'd built for himself in Four Corners was no longer evident, despite Nathan's assurances that continued hard work on the scar would eventually make it hardly noticeable.
The healer had been astonished by the success of the work that he'd done. The sutures, fine as they had been, still made a notable set of railroad tracks across the right side of the southerner's face. But the healing balm that Ezra now religiously rubbed into the scars as frequently as six times a day, and the deep tissue massage that Nathan performed daily were resulting in conspicuous progress.
Progress in everyone's eyes except for the green ones that belonged to Ezra Standish. He had yet to acknowledge the wonder of his own healing. Ezra had been most disheartened by the restrictions that had been placed on his activities by Jackson. He'd been instructed to rest as much as possible, and to not participate in anything that would cause undue stress, strain or jostling to his face. This had included but not been limited to riding his horse, riding in any horse-drawn contraptions, stagecoaches and trains. No running. Running? No dancing. Really. He had been instructed not to dance. When had Nathan Jackson ever seen Ezra P. Standish dance? For the first week or so after he'd been allowed up out of bed, he'd had to have a chaperone! It had been unbearable. But it hadn't, not really. It was quite something to behold, these people who cared for him so truly, so deeply. His mother's love never felt like this.
His long convalescence allowed for plenty of time for Ezra and J.D. to talk. But they hadn't. Finally, Buck had asked Ezra if he would mind talking to the kid. Ezra had said he held no ill will toward to the boy. Buck, after days of cajoling, finally convinced Standish that a face-to-face was required. Nathan had agreed that Ezra could have the conversation, but had asked Buck not to be far away; the healer had been heading out to a local homestead to deal with twins with a persistent cough.
"Come in, J.D."
"How're ya feelin' Ez?"
"Mistah Jackson insists that I am recovering well. Please, sit."
Dunne stood still, but suddenly started to pace, and to look anywhere but at Standish's face. "I'm so sorry, Ezra. I know it's my fault. All of this," he waved his hand back at the gambler but steadfastly refused to look Ezra's way, "it's my fault. I shoulda listened the first time you shoved my head out of the way. But no, I had to put my head up again and again. And now, you. . .well. . ." Dunne stopped talking but kept pacing, his hat becoming more abused than it already was with his fidgeting hands.
"Mistah Dunne. . ." Ezra said, trying to get J.D.'s attention, but J.D. continued.
"I guess I haven't learned as much as I thought. It was so dumb. Dumb. But I didn't do it on purpose. I didn't realize, and we were all talkin'. Maybe I shoulda just shut up. My concentration. . . Maybe I. . .I. . ." he stuttered again, but kept on walking.
"J.D.," Ezra called louder this time.
"Would you mind sitting down. I confess that tryin' to keep up with you is makin' me feel somewhat faint." It was no lie. He'd spent little time other than flat on his back for the first two weeks after the incident. This third week he'd been allowed to sit up, but his recuperation had been, as Nathan had predicted, quite exhausting.
"Oh, shit. Ezra. I'm so sorry. See, I don't understand. I can't seem to get anything right. . ."
"J.D.? Could you please sit?" J.D. sat, with his head down, looking at his hat. Ezra sighed. "Mistah Dunne? Could you please look at me?"
"No?" Ezra sputtered. "J.D., you will give me the courtesy of your full attention. I am sure that I have earned at least that." Dunne raised his head and looked Ezra square in the eye. "What exactly is it that has you in such a state? You believe that you are the reason I have this scar?"
"And if you were the reason, what do you think I should do?"
"I would want. . .I don't know. Maybe an apology?"
"An apology? You believe an apology is sufficient compensation for scarring me for life?" Ezra asked calmly.
"Well, no, not really. Of course not. But I ain't got nothin' I can do to help. Nathan. . ."
"Mistah Jackson is our healer. He is my friend. You are my friend."
J.D. looked down at his hat once more.
"J.D.?" Ezra said loudly. Dunne jumped and then looked up. "Keep your head up, Mistah Dunne." J.D. did as he was told. As he raised his face, Ezra could see the tears pooling in the sad, brown eyes. "J.D., you are not to blame for what happened. I pushed you out of the way. The miscreant who fired sent a lucky shot to where you had been positioned, but what happened next was, quite simply, bad luck. I had pulled back to my cover behind the rock. That said rock would explode as it did, and send a shard the way it did, right into my face. Suffice it to say that Lady Luck can sometimes have a perplexing sense of humor." He smiled at his young friend.
"Ezra, there ain't nothin' funny about any of this."
"I know that, J.D. No one on this planet knows that better that I. But you cannot dwell on what might have been. Lord knows I cannot. This could all have happened exactly the same way, only it might have been one of those moments, few as they were that day, where I was not pushing your head down out of the way. It was dumb luck, nothing more. And not your fault."
J.D. blinked, the tears falling down his cheek. "I don't know, Ez. It still feels. . ."
"I know. But I want you to know that I do not hold you responsible. I do not wish for you to bear this burden for the rest of your life. I will bear this scar that long, I cannot change that. But for you, my friend, I insist that you accept absolution."
Ezra huffed out a short, affectionate laugh. "Even though there is nothing to forgive, I forgive you."
"Oh. Well, okay. Thanks, Ezra." Dunne stood to leave.
"Mr. Dunne?" the healing man asked.
"You will keep your head down henceforth?"
"If you mean from now on, yeah, I will. I promise."
Ezra smiled at the translation. "That's all I ask."
"And Ez, I hope you know, that I'm takin' real good care of Chaucer. He sure misses you."
"And I him. You will tell him for me? And you are giving him regular treats, but not too many. He's not gettin' the exercise he's used to."
"Yeah, I wish I had more time to take him out, but we go out for short rides every other day. I'll tell him." J.D. smiled as he looked at Ezra with more confidence. "I'll see you later."
"Good day, Mistah Dunne." Standish watched the young man leave and then leaned back wearily into his pillow. That had been exhausting. He closed his eyes, deciding a nap was in order. Before he could fall asleep, the door opened again. It was Buck Wilmington.
"Mistah Wilmington, to what do I owe the pleasure."
"Awful nice, what you just did there," the tall cowboy said as he took the seat next to Ezra's bed in the clinic.
"I don't know what you mean." He yawned, carefully, as he'd learned to do in order to save himself from at least some pain.
"Ez, I talked to Vin. He says you weren't back under cover, that you were still tryin' to get back when that shard tore off. Said if ya hadn't forced J.D. out of the way that you wouldn't have been in the line of fire, so to speak."
"Well, that may be so. But there seemed little reason to allow our young Mistah Dunne to hold that guilt for the rest of his life."
"Kid needs to learn right from wrong. Smart from dumb," Buck insisted.
"I know. I believe that this was a harsh lesson for him, whether or not he continued to own that guilt." Ezra frowned as he felt a headache coming on. This conversation had taken a lot out of him. He had no reserves left to fight off a headache.
"You hurtin', Ez?"
Ezra raised his left hand and gently rubbed at his forehead, careful not to go too far to the right. "I feel a headache is upon me."
"Want me to get Nathan, see if he can give ya somethin'?"
"He will be here soon enough. Mistah Jackson is nothing if not predictable." The door opened just as he said it.
"I heard that," Nathan said.
"So, apparently he's right," Buck said with a bright smile. Ezra laughed lightly but then frowned at the pain. "He's got a headache," Wilmington said, pointing his thumb at Standish.
"Talkin' to J.D. gives me a headache sometimes, too," the healer admitted.
"Me, too," Buck joined in. "Hey, Ez, how about I come back at suppertime?"
"That would be satisfactory, Mistah Wilmington."
At three full months past the injury date, Nathan had advised Chris Larabee that Ezra could be placed back on light duty, which currently meant shortened hours taking a turn monitoring the jail. Jackson had insisted that he not be left alone: any risk of a punch to the face would destroy all of the progress that had been made in Standish's recovery. But Ezra himself had petitioned for the light duty, and had even suggested the pairings as a viable option to assure them all that he would not overdo. How much trouble could one get in while babysitting drunks in a jail cell or thumbing through wanted posters?
The rest of the "Magnificent Seven' had thought it a good sign when Ezra had shown an interest in getting back to work. But the first day that he had taken the duty, paired with Buck, he'd spent all of this time in the shadow of the second cell, flipping through wanted posters, memorizing the faces, making sure he was prepared should one of these wanted men make an appearance in his adopted hometown.
After their shift ended, Standish had wished Wilmington a fond adieu, and headed straight for his room. The conman had made a habit of it of late: having Inez Recillos prepare an order of the daily special and have it waiting for him. Today had been no different. Ezra took the tray, thanked the lovely Mexican bar manager, and headed up the stairs. It was a pattern none of them liked to see, watching him hurt like that and not knowing what to do to help. Buck followed a short time later through the saloon's batwing doors.
"He head upstairs already?" the tall gunslinger asked the foursome at their regular table. Josiah was taking his turn at the jail; Chris, Vin, Nathan and J.D. all sat nursing their drinks of choice.
"Yep," J.D. answered. "Gave us a tip of his hat, stepped over to the bar, Inez wasn't gone but a minute to get his dinner, and then up he went."
"Well, fellas," Buck said as he turned a chair around and straddled it, taking the full shot glass that Vin had poured for him, "I think we have ourselves a problem."
"He jest needs more time," the tracker said softly.
"Vin," Wilmington started, but Tanner cut him off.
"He needs more time to heal, inside and out," Vin insisted. He set his quickly emptied glass down, stood and left.
"He ain't wrong," Nathan commented. Buck shook his head. J.D. looked forlorn, the dregs of his mug of milk suddenly unappealing.
"How'd it go, Buck?" Chris asked.
"Sat in the empty cell most o' the time, head down in those damned posters. Sat so his right side was facin' the back wall. Wouldn't take a turn out on the boardwalk. Hardly said two, three sentences the whole four hours."
"He has a ways to go. Even though we all can see the improvement in his scarring," Nathan explained, "to Ezra, it's still a deep, bloody wound." Jackson looked from one man to the next before adding, "Like Vin said, he needs time." He took a swig of beer, but he, too, shook his head.
"I said it back on the day this whole thing started," Chris Larabee countered. "Whatever he needs, we'll be there for him. So if it's time, he gets time, as much time as he needs." Larabee stood, downed his whiskey, and headed out the door.
Buck lowered his chin to his chest, shook his head again and uttered a soft, "Damn."
J.D. Dunne looked worried, more worried than even the morning of the incident. Buck raised his head, saw the concern so evident on his young friend's face and asked, "What is it, kid?"
Dunne turned to Jackson and said, "Nathan, won't it take years for that scar to disappear, I mean, not disappear but, you know. . ."
"J.D., Ezra's always going to have a scar. The question is how long can we stick with the regimen. Most scars remain terribly visible 'cause people don't do nothin' to 'em. What I'm doin' with Ezra. . .it's usually something that's done for younger women. Children heal remarkably well. . .older women don't care so much. With Ezra, well, I just think we can make it so's he's at least not so self-conscious about it that he'll at least play poker again. Can't hardly believe I just said that," Nathan added, smiling sadly as he looked up the staircase toward the card player's room.
Buck put his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "You just want what's best for him. You want him to be his old self, in spite of yourself," Buck said with a knowing smile. "The kid and me promise to keep your secret, don't we J.D.?"
"Of course," Dunne proclaimed, innocence abounding.
Two more months went by. There was more and positive progress with Ezra's scar, but little improvement in the healing of Standish's psyche.
The knock at the door jerked Ezra's attention away from the mirror. He'd now replaced three different ones since being released from Nathan's care months ago. He had though that the comfort of his own room would help in the healing, with his things, his featherbed. He hadn't counted on his reaction to the mirror: he would jump back when he'd catch the scarred image reflected back, three times having gone for his gun and fired, shattering the glass and the momentary peace of the town. At this point in time he had grave doubts as to whether he would ever be over this. He went to the door, his weapon at hand.
"Who is it?"
"Chris." Standish sighed. He knew that all of his friends were worried about him. He wondered if maybe Larabee was here to set him straight. He was, after all, a man. An adult. He should be able to move on from this, get on with life. He hadn't lost life or limb. Hell. He'd been attempting the same dialogue with himself for weeks now; it was about time someone else took a stab at it. Maybe Chris Larabee would have better luck.
"Come in," the gambler said as he opened the door and re-holstered his Colt. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Sit down, Ezra," Chris suggested, opening his palm toward the feather bed. Standish complied, sure that he knew what was coming, as Chris tossed a large, worn leather messenger's sleeve next to him on the bed. He grabbed the rocking chair, placed it in front of the card sharp and said, "We need to talk," as he sat down in the comfortable chair.
"Mistah Larabee. . .Chris. . .I want to say that. . .well. . .I want to thank you for your patience. I realize that I have been lax of late in upholding my responsibilities in minding the care and well-being of the town and its fine citizens. If you would allow me one final. . ."
"Shut up a minute." Chris Larabee looked out the window, his face ripe with worry and could that be. . .indecision? "I brought somethin' for you to see," he continued, looking toward the leather pouch. "Take a look," he encouraged.
Ezra Standish, a perplexed look of his own adorning his handsome, battered face, tentatively grasped the fine leather folder. "What is this?"
Larabee clasped his hands between his knees as he looked down at his dusty boots. Ezra noticed the hint of a smile before Chris said, "Sarah was forever polishin' my boots. Couldn't get her to stop. If they weren't on my feet, they were gettin' cleaned." He looked up into Standish's confused face and smiled sadly. "Sometimes she cleaned 'em when I was still wearin' 'em."
Ezra smiled back. "It was just something she did, something she thought would make you happy."
This time Larabee bore an actual toothy smile. He looked out the window again, as though he could see the image he described from long ago just beyond the lace curtain flitting in the breeze. "And I'll be damned, such a thankless thing to try to keep up with in a place like this, but she did it anyway." He looked back into Standish's eyes. "It did make me happy."
Ezra nodded. He knew there was a connection between this story that Chris had brought with him and the mystery folder. And him. And it wasn't like Chris Larabee to open up like this if he didn't have something important to say. Ezra untied the leather string, opened the flap and pulled out three detailed sketches of a woman's face. . .of Sarah Larabee's face. The gambler was taken by the woman's simple beauty, in spite of the jagged scar that went from her left ear, down along her jaw line and appeared to be heading across her throat. All three sketches were silhouettes, from the left, as though to detail the cut.
"What?" Ezra started. He stopped right quick, though. He really didn't know what to ask. The lady in question in the drawings was dead. And it was obvious from the detail of the drawings that this scar had not disappeared, not in any real sense.
"Sarah's father never thought much of me. I wasn't good enough. He was right." Chris was taking his time with this story; Ezra, despite his intense desire to know everything right away, chose to exhibit patience as he listened to the reformed gunslinger speak of his beloved wife. "There was a reason he felt that way. This happened to her two years before we met. Damned animal thought he owned her, he beat her. Cut her," he choked out. Larabee's hands were clasped tight, the circulation nearly cut off. He unclasped them, wiped the palms on his pant legs and stood, walking to the window. "I saw her from her good. . .other side first and I was done for. She did everything in her power to push me away; she was so sure that I wouldn't want her because of that," he said, waving his hand toward the sketches that Ezra now held carefully in his hand as it rested on the bed. Chris turned to face Ezra. "She was the most beautiful person I'd ever known. She never let the scar that he left her with change who she was. She was beautiful inside and out."
"I can see that." Standish had never seen the woman's likeness, though he had known of the locket with her image, and he'd had a good idea of her looks from Buck's description of her, though Wilmington had never mentioned the scar. She was beautiful, and somehow the scar was not able to mar that beauty. "These sketches?"
"I drew them. Thought maybe when the bastard had been caught, justice would be served. Sarah refused to consider testifying. Said it was old and buried in her mind. I couldn't stand the thought of him gettin' away, thought maybe if I drew the judge a picture of what he'd done that it would mean something."
"But the judge couldn't accept it if the victim was not willin' to come forward."
"I didn't know. . ."
"Not many did. She put on some stuff to cover it when we went in town. But she didn't have to cover it often, she was so happy at home, tendin' the house, the garden, taking care of the animals when I was away. Raising our son."
"She had a full life. You were a lucky man."
Chris looked at Ezra. Most days he didn't feel lucky. He had loved and then that love was taken from him. But he'd had Sarah in his life, for even that precious short time, and they had made a beautiful boy, and they'd been a family and he had been a rancher and a husband and a father. Yes, he had been lucky to have those things, even for that very short time that seemed a lifetime ago.
"Yeah," he agreed, glancing at the images of his wife. "Buck knew. . .said he'd steal her from me one day."
"Our Mistah Wilmington does have an eye for a beautiful woman."
Chris took his seat in the chair opposite Ezra. "Look, the reason I brought this up is that I don't want you worrying about. . ." his eyes scanned the scar, which made Ezra turn his head away. Chris tapped Ezra's knee. "Hey," he said, getting Ezra to look at him again. "Don't worry about it so much. First, and I know you may not see it, but your scar does not look like Sarah's. What Nathan did was amazing. And as every week goes by, with all the work that you two have done, that scar fades more and more." Larabee pulled a container from his pocket. "This is the stuff Sarah used to cover it up. It's from Paris."
"Mother would be impressed," Ezra said as he took the round ceramic jar.
"I'm sure she would. I ordered it, came in the mail. Nobody needs to know."
"Mistah Lar. . .Chris. I do not know what to say. Taking me in your confidence, tellin' me about the lovely Sarah. . ."
"Ezra, I did it because I care about ya. We all do. I don't want you getting some crazy notion that you gotta leave, that people won't accept you now because of how you look." Chris watched the reaction, not quite sure his words were having the impact he'd hoped. There were days, as few and far between as they were, that he wished that he had the ease of speaking that Ezra had. "You said I was a lucky man to have had Sarah in my life. Well, it took a while for it to sink in, but that day we met at the saloon was a pretty lucky day in my life, too."
The serious direction the conversation had taken was proving too much for the gambler. His emotions had been on edge ever since he'd recovered enough to be out of bed, but all that thinking hadn't brought the answers he'd sought. He'd used the excuse of 'essential contemplation' before, to keep these people away after he'd been shot saving Mary Travis' life. He'd been embarrassed then, about them seeing that weakness so clearly. It seemed his constitution wasn't as strong as he thought. And it seemed that all this time on his hands for thinking had gotten him exactly nowhere, except here. He was still here, and people wanted him here. People liked him here, in spite of his weaknesses, in spite of his scars, the ones easy to see and the ones he continued to try to hide. It seemed harder and harder to hide from these people, and maybe, just maybe that was because he no longer wanted to.
"I guess I am somewhat of an acquired taste."
"No kidding," Larabee agreed with a smile. Chris recognized the misdirection and decided to allow Ezra the courtesy of it. He figured that Standish understood his point, but he'd be keeping an eye on him, just as he knew Buck and Vin and the others would. And the women of the town, who had been willing to abide the southerner's wishes for privacy. . .well, he was pretty sure that things would be changing on that front, too, if his oldest friend, the one who had saved him from himself after he'd lost Sarah and Adam, had anything to say about it.
Chris Larabee walked down the main street of Four Corners. He was still several buildings away from the jail when he heard a series of loud cheers and laughter, children enjoying themselves on this sunny and delightfully warm late winter's day. As he drew nearer he saw the cause of all of the hootin' and hollerin': one Ezra P. Standish, amazing the crowd with card tricks and other slight-of-hand that had the children, and more than a handful of adults from the town, oohing and aahing. Chris shook his head and grinned as he walked up alongside Vin Tanner.
"How long's he been at it?"
"A while. Give him an audience and he's a sight to behold," Tanner said as he clapped at the most recent trick from the gambler.
"Seems like the old Ezra," Larabee noted, not even attempting to hide the affection he felt toward the man.
"Maybe. Maybe better."
It had been nine months now since the accident that had scarred Ezra's face. The scar was still plain to see, but it seemed that the former con man had learned to live with it. Larabee couldn't recall ever seeing Standish use the skin powder from Paris. He liked to think that his story of Sarah, her strength and bravery, had been what brought the man around. It had seemed touch and go there for a while, but Chris and the others of the seven, with able assists from Mary, Inez, Casey and Nettie, Mrs. Potter and other townsfolk who knew what Ezra Standish had done for the town. . .and watched as he had suffered through this long recovery of body and soul. . .had shown persistence and a gentle and caring touch in handling their skittish colt.
Scars were like that, sometimes. A scar on the landscape can, in time, transform to magnificent beauty. A scar to the soul. . .the heart. . .could still allow for the golden moments to shine through in memory. Ezra had learned more in these nine months than he realized. His internal scars appeared healed, his place in the hearts and minds of Four Corners secure. His other scar? Well, it served more like Sarah's, not necessarily a badge of honor, but just something that he'd gotten over, something that, just like Sarah, he chose not to let define who he was. At this stage, with the scar still evident to all who met him, it was beyond what they could have hoped for. Chris trusted, however, that this recovery was a thriving work in progress.