"I'll go get 'im," Vin Tanner offered, silently willing his friend to accept.
"No. I'll do it," a seething Chris Larabee answered as he grabbed his hat and headed out the jailhouse door, spurs jingling sharply, his boots pounding on the hard wood of the floor.
"Chris," the tracker pleaded as he followed the tall gunslinger out the door to the still-bright sunshine. "He ain't that late."
"He's late enough. Keep an eye on Sweeney," he ordered.
"Sweeney ain't goin' nowhere. It'll be hours before he sleeps this one off," Tanner said as he kept pace with his angry associate.
"Vin … " Chris practically growled, a hint of threat in his tone and a whole lot in his countenance. Tanner knew he was safe from Larabee's wrath, but he wasn't so sure about his southern friend. It wasn't like this was the first time Ezra Standish had been late for patrol. No, most definitely not the first time. Vin was pretty sure it was planned by the con man; for some reason Ezra found this game that he played with Chris just too tempting. He pushed and pushed and then knew just when to pull back. Looked like this time Ezra's timing was off. He was certainly due to be hit with the full fury of Chris Larabee. Tanner knew Larabee well enough – after more than two years of working and riding and drinking with the man day in and day out – that the gunslinger turned lawman had a temper that when unleashed could part a crowd without a word … and had been known to turn deadly. That side of him had been tamed somewhat over the few years that they'd known one another, but Chris hadn't been in a good mood for days, the anniversary of the loss of his family fast approaching. Ezra had to know he was risking serious injury by pushing as far as he had today. Vin wouldn't let Chris hurt their friend, but he would surely back their leader up in hauling the southerner out of his featherbed, kick his ass down the saloon stairs and all the way to the livery until they saw the man up on his horse and on his way for the regular evening circuit of the town and the immediate outskirts, a boot print clear on the seat of his pants.
"Can't let ya hurt 'im."
"Fine. Just don't get in my way." Tanner stayed even with Larabee's long, thundering strides as they made their way up the dusty avenue from the jail to the saloon where Standish kept a room. Dust billowed across the boardwalk, the late day sun bearing down to heighten the appearance of the swirling cloud of dirt, as he pounded up the step and kept a steady pace to the tavern's entrance. Larabee slammed the batwing doors open. He glanced to the expert poker player's regular table, noticed that it was empty, and then saw Buck Wilmington and J.D. Dunne standing at the bar. Larabee threw them both a glare as he strode past, Tanner tossing in a look that said he was bound and determined to keep one friend from drawing the blood of another.
"Hold up there old pard," Wilmington said as he grabbed the feared gunman's arm in an attempt to slow him down. Larabee turned on his old friend, his hand fisted and ready to strike. "Now, now," Buck said, pulling both hands back and up, palms outward, in a sign of surrender. "Calm down. Ezra isn't making patrol today. Me and the kid were gonna come over, flip a coin to see who would be coverin' for 'im."
"And why would that be?" Chris asked, his face now near as flushed as anybody had ever remembered seeing him. "Drink too much while cheatin' someone outta their hard-earned savings?" He regretted it as soon as he said it; he knew Ezra didn't cheat, at least not unless he was forced to, be there actual cheaters in the game, or in a con that he was running for the benefit of the town. Chris knew that recent events and the upcoming anniversary of the death of his wife and child had made him surly, to put it mildly. He'd been churlish with everyone of late, but what he'd just said about the gambler was both mean and untrue.
"I thought that was my line," Nathan Jackson said as he made his way down the staircase. Damned if that wasn't the truth; how many times had Larabee chastised Jackson for the very words he had just spoken about the man?
"What the hell's goin' on?"
"Ezra's sick, Chris. Can't make patrol," the healer stated as he sidled up to the bar. "Beer," he said to Inez with a smile.
"How is he?" she asked as she filled the mug. The very concerned Mexican woman set the beer in front of the clearly tired black man.
"Sick. He's terrible dizzy, and he ain't got nothin' left to puke. Oh, Inez, can ya get someone to get the bucket outside his room, empty it and clean it out and bring it back up? Door's unlocked, Josiah's with him."
"Of course," the pretty bar manager said.
As Nathan took the first taste of his beer, he could sense his four fellow peacekeepers staring at him, waiting for more information. He swallowed what he had in his mouth, set the mug down and took a deep breath.
"Mighta been something he ate," Nathan started.
"Somethin' he ate?" Larabee roared. "He's not makin' his shift because of indigestion?" The tall blond turned to head to the staircase. He might regret what he said earlier, but the leader of the seven would be damned if he'd let Standish get away with shirking his turn at patrol because of a tummy ache.
"Chris! Just calm down. I'm not talkin' indigestion. I'm talkin' food poisoning. Botulism. Maybe. Might just be a bad stomach virus. Symptoms are all similar. In any case, I'm tellin' you he can't stand let alone ride a horse. He's weak, still feelin' sick and that ain't gonna be no good 'cause he ain't got nothin' left to bring up. He ain't even keepin' a little bit of water down right now. He's headed to being dangerously dehydrated right quick."
"Then what the hell are ya doin' down here, Nate?" Chris demanded, the rage of moments before replaced with overwhelming concern.
"Just takin' a break. Givin' him a break, too. Been tryin' to get him to keep somethin' down for over an hour. Been hard on him. I got some herbs for a tea that might settle his stomach some so's I can get some of Inez's broth in him."
"You're worried, Nate," Vin stated plainly.
"Real worried," the healer agreed.
"Sorry, Nathan. I didn't mean to sound … well … "
"It's all right, Chris. I know how ya feel."
Larebee doubted it.
Chris Larabee wasn't the type of man to be obvious about it, but he did worry about his men. His friends. He cared about these men, all of them. But there was something about Ezra Standish … he wasn't sure what it was. He thought he knew why he felt that extra closeness with Vin, and long years with Buck, living through the heaven and hell that his life had been, was reason enough to hold special feelings for Wilmington. The gambler got under his skin, though – in both good ways and bad – more than any person he'd ever met. He knew he didn't understand it, just as he knew that he'd learned to accept it, though he wouldn't be surprised if the man's damned mother didn't have something to do with these feelings he held toward Ezra. She was a pain in the ass in every sense, and left Ezra feeling poorly after every visit. He felt a surge of brotherly protection for the man after that woman would leave his town. A side benefit Chris had found of growing close to these men was how, combined with the buffering of years distant, the pain of remembering the death of his wife and child was lessened. That loss still hurt, especially now as the anniversary of losing them approached, but having people in his life again to care about gave him something positive on which to focus his emotions. At least, and to the relief of his associates, he'd been focusing it less and less in the bottom of the bottle.
"I'm headin' up," Larabee stated, waiting on any more from Jackson.
"He don't want an audience," Nathan warned. Larabee's glare right back at the Negro healer made it clear that Chris was heading up, warning or no.
"Buck, figure out who's gonna cover for Ezra." He turned to Nathan. "I'm sending Josiah to get some rest. He's got the shift after Ezra's so he don't need to be spending his time watching over him." The unspoken decision that Chris would be doing that came through loud and clear. "Get that tea back here quick as you can," the reformed gunslinger ordered as he headed up the staircase.
"Cowboy," Vin called to his worried friend. Chris stopped and looked down to the former buffalo hunter.
"Tell Ez I'll be up to see him later," Tanner offered. Larabee nodded his agreement and then continued up the steps. Chris may not have figured out yet what it was exactly that he and Ezra shared, but he knew that Vin held an affection for the gamester, an affection that he'd found from that first skirmish with the crazy Confederate colonel. Whereas Larabee wanted to throttle Standish but good after he had briefly skipped out on them, Tanner had seen the uncertainty grip the southerner as the final confrontation approached. Vin had overheard some of the children from the Seminole village talking about what Ezra had told them, about the type of men their fathers were, and about his comrades who had been hired to help protect the village. It would have taken a deaf man not to hear what went unspoken, that the wily card sharp didn't feel that he earned a spot in either group.
Vin Tanner had his own self doubt, and he'd learned after meeting and dealing with Maude Standish how Ezra's own self worth might have been twisted by the overbearing woman. Vin's heart hurt when he thought of how things might have been … if Ezra had been lucky enough to be raised by Tanner's loving, brave mother. He hurt for his friend, as he still hurt for his own loss. No matter how many times Chris might have said that Ezra didn't fit or shouldn't stay, Vin was always there, in his quiet way, to stand up for their black sheep. Not to say that Vin didn't have moments when he wanted to deck the man, but he always managed to find the good in him, and found himself standing up for Ezra when Chris or Nathan or Josiah judged him harshly. As it happened, and as the weeks turned to months, and then to years, Chris Larabee was happy to be proved wrong. He was happy to say that Vin had been right about Ezra all along; he'd been surprised to suddenly find himself calling Standish 'friend'. It pained him deeply whenever the gambler got hurt, which happened far too often for the blond's liking, an unfortunate result of characteristics that Larabee admired about the man – bravery and fearlessness and compassion - or sick, which was extremely rare and thus all the more worrisome.
The leader of 'The Magnificent Seven' stepped up to Standish's door and let himself in. He looked down to the bed to see Ezra's eyes, so expressive when the shields were down, right now dully open and pained. He looked up into Sanchez's eyes and saw the worry that he himself now felt reflected back in the preacher's face.
"Go ahead and get something to eat and then get some rest. You've got the next shift," Larabee told him.
"What about Ezra?" Sanchez asked. It was clear that the big man didn't want to leave his sick friend.
"I'm stayin'. Nate'll be back soon with something that should help him feel better. Go ahead," Chris insisted.
Josiah leaned down and pushed the sweaty strands of hair from Standish's forehead. "I'll check in with you later, Ezra," he said, leaving his hand on the top of the damp, tousled hair for a long moment. Ezra closed his eyes but didn't in any other way acknowledge Sanchez's action or comment. Josiah left the room.
Chris moved the comfortable rocking chair so that he could sit facing Ezra so that the sick man wouldn't have to move to see him. It was pretty obvious that the nausea had not subsided; Ezra was doing everything in his power not to move. If Ezra had been feeling at all well he would have been appalled at the remaining scent of sickness in his inviting room. The sound of his breathing seemed to echo through the small room with the short, uneven pants, his mouth slightly open. His complexion was so pale, white with almost a hint of green, the pallor far too reminiscent of … . No, Chris would not think like that. He sat down as he finished his observation of his friend.
"Seems like an extreme way to get out of work, Ezra," he said. Though Ezra kept his eyes shut after Josiah left the room, Chris knew that he wasn't sleeping. He opened his eyes, giving Chris the best glare he could muster, which didn't amount to much.
"B'lieve me, Mistah Larabee … " he paused, closed his eyes and took more open-mouthed breaths, willing the nausea away, "if it had been … mah intention … to play hooky, I would … indeed have found a … more pleasant … diversion." A groan immediately followed, and then Ezra rose to lean over the bed. He retched as Chris reached for the container to the side of the bed. Chris swiftly moved from the chair to sit on the edge of the bed and rubbed Ezra's back as he continued to cough and gag and expel absolutely nothing. Nathan had said that their ill seventh had not been keeping anything down and was risking de-hydration. The leader of the seven hoped that whatever it was that the healer brought back would work, and that he would return with it soon. Chris set the canister down and concentrated on Ezra, talking to him as he suffered through the terrible choking spasms. Ezra finally finished with this bout of sickness, but found he had no energy to right himself. He rested, exhausted, leaning over Larabee's knee as Chris continued the comforting massage of the southerner's back through the sweat-dampened shirt. A warm breeze from the open window was welcomed by both men.
"Now … would … be an … opportune … time," the poker player said, catching his breath after his workout.
"Opportune time for what?"
"Shootin' me … " he started, taking careful breaths. "You've threatened … in the past. Ah now … accord you such … permission."
Chris grinned as he gave the weary man one last, warm rub on the back. "I ain't gonna shoot ya, Ezra," he said. "Here," he continued, grabbing the pillow that was halfway to falling from the bed. He plumped it and set it up behind the gambler. "Let's get you back up, make you comfortable." He was careful with Ezra's left shoulder, still healing from another recent dislocation.
"Don't envision that … bein' a real … possibility. Unless you have … that bullet." Standish's breathing had gotten better, closer to normal. He still breathed through his mouth, though, a clear sign that he was still worried about more vomiting to come.
"Like I said, don't want to shoot you, so quit askin'. Haven't wanted to do that for a while now."
"Just mah luck." Ezra raised a shaky hand to his forehead and swiped the sweaty wetness that was making its way down to his eyes. He moaned.
"Gonna be sick?" Chris asked.
"Nngh. Don't … " Ezra started. He stopped, concentrated more on breathing, and then finally added, "Don't think so."
"What happened?" Larabee asked. It was obvious that Nathan wasn't exactly sure what ailed the southerner. Chris figured maybe Ezra could tell him.
"Ah wish ah knew," Standish replied, his voice scratchy, his throat raw from the many earlier successful rounds of vomiting.
"Did ya eat somethin' that didn't agree with you?" Chris doubted that this was the case. He and Ezra had been together, along with Vin and Buck, over the last forty-eight hours, eating the same things on the trail, and then they'd eaten together at breakfast that morning. Ezra had headed to his room after breakfast, knowing that he'd be taking the early evening patrol. This illness had come on suddenly, at least based on what Chris knew. But had he been feeling poorly for longer? They all knew how good Ezra was at hiding how he felt, physically; he was no less adept at hiding his feelings. Ezra Standish was nothing if not a good student; his mother had taught him well. It was up to his six friends and the people of this town to work on the continuing education of the quick learner, to break some of the less acceptable habits of a lifetime that his talented but misguided grifter mother had forced him to perfect.
"Ah ate what you and Monsieurs Wilmington and Tanner ate."
"Didn't have anything after breakfast?"
"You been feelin' all right lately?" Larabee continued the questioning of his prime witness.
"Yes. It was not until these last … few hours that I felt ill. Why do you ask? Do you believe ah am prevaricatin'?" Ezra knew that Chris knew the word – the gunslinger was far better educated than he ever let on – but he followed it with a questioning, "Lyin'?" just because it was Ezra Standish's favorite pastime, riling one Chris Larabee.
"I know what the word means," Chris growled. The response brought a slight smile to the sick man's face. Chris decided that smile had been well worth allowing Ezra to win this round. "Don't think you're prevaricatin'," saying the word with extra emphasis. "Just thinkin' … "
"Don't hurt yourself," Standish joked. He groaned again. Larabee watched carefully, but it seemed Ezra was managing to stave off the nausea, for now.
"Everybody's a comedian." Chris thought back to their time together yesterday, the day before, and earlier today. The foursome had chaperoned a small wagon train out to the far side of the range west of the Indian village. Usually they would have stayed overnight with Kojay and his people before heading back, but a traveling carnival was heading into town, and Larabee wanted everyone ready for the extra people and throngs of families – and who knew who-all else – that would be crowding their fair town. They rode straight through and managed to get in just as the hotel restaurant opened for breakfast. A quick meal and Buck and Ezra headed to bed. Chris caught a nap as well once he'd checked in with Sheriff Dunne. Vin had taken over for Nathan at the jail; Dunne, Jackson and Sanchez had been covering for the four missing men over the last two days. And besides the circus coming to town, there was the judge and the upcoming trial.
"Huh," Larabee said.
Standish grunted, and then asked, "What?" The involuntary grunts and groans were a clear signal of just how miserable the man was feeling. Ezra, they had all found, was pretty good at hiding it when he didn't feel well. He hated the fussing, and grew more and more petulant the more Nathan or Josiah or anyone else hovered. But this, whatever this was, was making the man too uncomfortable to hide behind his regular and decidedly formidable mask.
"Water," Chris said.
"No, sir," Ezra warned. As though just the thought of partaking in food or water was all that was needed, Ezra started to gag. Chris reached for the trash can, but once again, his friend ended with just a miserable bout of dry heaves.
"Okay?" the gunslinger asked. Ezra nodded and once more Chris removed him from his knee and carefully leaned the exhausted man back against the pillows.
"Thank you, Chris. Ah do apologize."
"No need. We're all worried about ya, Ezra."
"I have to admit to some consternation of mah own," Standish admitted breathlessly. "The thought of water or … "
"Yeah, the water … "
"No!" Standish insisted.
"No, no. That's not what I meant. At breakfast, you asked for a glass of water."
"Lord, I did. The water was tainted." He sighed, sinking further into the pillows, and then added, "This town is goin' to have to think of addin' a sewer system if the water is being tainted."
"Maybe tainted, maybe poisoned," Larabee wondered as he kept eye contact with Standish. The glassy green eyes of the southerner grew wide.
"Good lord, the Bolton trial!" he exclaimed, though in his weakened state, the emphasis seemed lost in the breathy response.
Chris jumped up from his seat, opened the door and yelled, "Someone get Nathan!" J.D. was quickly up the stairs and at Ezra's door. "Tell him to bring ipecac, or whatever he needs for poison." The young man's big brown eyes looked huge with shock as he quickly looked over to his friend in the bed. He looked back to Chris when the blond urged, "Go," and then he turned and hightailed it down the stairs and out of the saloon.
"No," Ezra begged. He attempted to force his weakened limbs to get into an upright position. He was having no luck as he continued, "Ah have expelled all there is to expel." The room was darkening as early evening gave way to dusk. The light in Ezra's room mirrored the dark look on Larabee's face. Standish knew that he wouldn't be going anywhere; he didn't have the energy to fight little Billy Travis, let alone a determined Chris Larabee.
"Stay put," Chris said as his friend struggled to get his legs over the side of the bed. "Gotta try to get as much out as possible."
"Ah have been throwin' up for nearly three hours. Whatever it was, it must all have made its way into the numerous buckets and other receptacles that Josiah and Nathan have kindly disposed of. I will not willingly be subjected to more of this torture." The long speech left Ezra breathless and taking huge gulps of air to replenish what he'd just wasted. And there was no doubt, as Standish fought with Larabee, that he had just wasted all of that precious air.
He wouldn't be Maude Standish's son if he didn't at least try. "Ah will not."
They stared at one another, one glaring from the bed as the agitation and the talking persistently wore him down, the other standing tall above the bed, imposing in every normal way that Chris Larabee could be, except that Ezra had learned a lot about Chris over the two plus years that they had worked with their other partners in law enforcement. Ezra knew that Chris' stance now was not one of strength or pride or dominance, not this time. It was one of concern, and as hard as he fought with Chris, Ezra knew, in the end, that he would lose this battle because he understood that the gunslinger only had the gambler's best interests at heart.
What a miserable day out west this had turned out to be.
Heavy treads could be heard storming up the stairs. Nathan Jackson came through the open door, bags in tow, followed by Vin Tanner.
"Gentlemen," Standish greeted mildly. Jackson and Tanner looked to Larabee.
"We think he was poisoned. The Bolton trial," Chris noted, mirroring Ezra's calm demeanor. The anxiety that both men had felt had changed quickly to acceptance of what had been done to one of them, and of what needed to be done next.
"Son of a bitch," Vin said. Nathan started pulling out his supplies.
"Need some light," the healer ordered. Vin got to work on lighting the room. "We're lucky he had such a severe reaction before," he said to Chris.
"Yes, ever so fortuitous," Ezra answered, dripping sarcasm.
Nathan continued, "Might not get any more of the poison out than he's already gotten out on his own." Nathan looked at his patient, and then to Larabee.
"Gotta … " Chris started.
"We must … " Ezra echoed at the same time.
They both ended with, " … try."
Nathan was ready with the charcoal powder and molasses mixture in just moments.
"Wh … What is … oh my lord," Ezra groaned as he saw the dark powder and the thick molasses poured and mixed together. He was familiar with this form of drawing out noxious elements a person might have ingested. He had seen ipecac used before; this would be something else altogether.
"Sorry, Ezra," the healer said as he sat on the bed next to the ill man.
"No apology is required, Mistah Jackson. However, I shall offer my regrets in advance as I believe you will be required to force upon my person the full amount of your miserable … " he contemplated what he was looking at and came up with the best description that he could in his current state, "glue. I understand the need, but I fear my anxiety over the procedure shall most assuredly trump my body's willin'ness to accept its necessity."
"Come on, let's get it over with," Chris demanded.
Ezra hadn't been kidding about the workout he'd warned his friends about. He'd tried to just accept the vile powdery black goop initially, but a gag reflex already right on the edge made it nearly impossible to take in much before he simply expelled it, his body doing involuntarily the opposite of what his mind wanted. Nathan gave his friend some tea to calm him, which miraculously stayed down, and then worked steadfastly with Chris and Vin, forcing the charcoal mixture down, waiting as it did the job it should, and cleaning up the filthy mess as it came back up.
"Looks like somethin' more than went in is still comin' out. That's good," Nathan observed after the second successful attempt.
"How many times we gotta force this stuff down 'im?" Vin asked. They were taking a short break, allowing each of them to rest after the hard exertion of the last while. Ezra seemed deeply asleep, and Vin hated the thought of waking him to face more pain and more anguish from this horrible process.
"I hate to do it, but I think we should try one more time, but let's give him some more time before we start again," Jackson answered.
"Nathan?" the sick man asked, his voice a weak, raspy echo of the normally clear, lilting timbre.
"Yeah Ezra?" The healer moved back over to the chair next to the sick man's bed.
"Ah do not … b'lieve," Ezra started, his voice barely there, his speech stilted by pauses due to pain and exhaustion, "ah c'n … tolerate … an … another … attempt. Can … we not assume … that since ah … was vomitin' early … and often … that most of the … poison is now … out of mah … ah! Lord!" Standish grimaced in pain as he rolled to his right side and clasped his left hand to his stomach.
"Ez?" Chris asked worriedly.
"Ezra, you hurtin'?" Nathan asked.
"Sh … Sharp pain," he answered through gritted teeth.
"Here?" Nathan asked as he placed his hand under where the ailing man's own hand now lay. He pressed gently and Ezra gasped.
"T … To the … r … right. Jesus," he moaned into the pillow.
"Nate?" Vin asked, worry a heavy anchor on his handsome face.
"Some poisons can have more than one side effect. Looks like we're past the nausea and on to stomach pains and cramps. Might last a while." The healer spoke tentatively, 'some', 'can', 'might' littering his speech. He'd rarely dealt with poisons and certainly not when they'd been administered with such specific deadly intent. The man's frustration was obvious to everyone.
"Do we have to do any more of the charcoal?" Chris demanded, his own frustration simmering.
"Probably not. Ezra's most likely right on that." It was pretty rare when Ezra Standish was wrong these days. Early on in their acquaintance the other six had found fault with the gamester and self-professed con man, from Nathan's condemnation of his poker playing – cheating – as the healer would call it back then, to Ezra's attempt to sell the ladies of Wickestown in a Four Corners version of mail order brides, to any one of a dozen get-rich-quick schemes, culminating in Standish's aborted attempt to steal the 'blood money' the day he'd saved Mary Travis' life. From that day forward, Ezra Standish had seemed a changed man. It seemed that the blood he'd spilled that day had painted a new picture of what his life could be, of what his life could mean. Sure, Standish was still all about making money, but when he worked those angles these days, he seemed to go out of his way to refrain from taking a player's last red cent, and oftentimes would just pull someone aside and have an intimate conversation, knowing that some of his opponents at the poker table were barely able to make ends meet, hardly able to put food on the dinner table for their families. No, if Ezra Standish had a skewed idea of right versus wrong before, he'd found it in his heart and in his conscience, with the help of the friendship of these men who had come to mean so much to him, to err on the side of his competitors at the poker table. Unless, of course, the bettors knew exactly what they were doing, or clearly had plenty of money to lose; in these cases, the accomplished poker player reckoned that all bets were off. He still managed to pocket a decent amount playing under this new philosophy.
"Ya got somethin' to give him for the cramps?" Vin asked hopefully.
"I don't know yet," Nathan answered honestly. "Might be the nausea is changing to diarrhea."
"Good lord," Ezra complained. "M … Must we … discuss this now?"
"Look, Ezra, if this is diarrhea, there really ain't much to be done but let it run its course. What's it feel like?"
"I … ah!" he started to reply to the former slave, but a sudden increase in the severity of the pain stopped him from going on. He moaned and rolled to his back. He put his hand up to wipe the increased moisture of both sweat and tears from his face. He breathed through the spasm and then rolled to his side once more. Jackson waited, as both Larabee and Tanner did, for the hurting man to be ready to go on. "It … f … feels like a sharp, st … stabbing pain. It does not feel … like what you so disagreeably just described."
"Well, just the same, I think it makes better sense not to hide any symptoms. I'll make you up a cup of willowbark tea, but not too strong."
"Just mah luck … when ah need it the most … ah am denied the … pleasure of one of your vile brews," Standish offered, the sharpness of his sarcasm only slightly blunted by his pain and exhaustion.
Chris caught Vin's eye and nodded his head toward the door. They lowered their voices as they spoke.
"If Bolton's got people after Ezra, then he may have someone goin' after Ephraim," Vin whispered.
"And the judge," Chris countered. "I'll have Mary send him a telegraph, make sure he has someone travel with him."
"Better make sure they got Bolton watched good over in Silver Spring. May have to move the trial here, dependin' on how long Ezra's sick."
"Like we ain't got enough of a thing to deal with around here with the circus comin'. Judge is not gonna like movin' the trial," Chris replied.
"What about Ephraim?" Vin asked.
"I'll have Buck and J.D. head out tonight, bring him in to town, at least until the trial is over," Chris replied. He looked toward their friend in the sickbed. "Damn. It ain't right. He's doin' the right thing, saved Ephraim's life, witnessed Carolyn's murder, caught the bastard who did it. Doin' the right thing isn't supposed to result in something like this."
"No, it ain't." Vin looked towards Ezra. "I'm stayin' with him."
"Nathan … " Chris started.
"Nathan gets called away enough that Ezra will need someone else with him." The healer nodded his agreement. "'Sides, knowin' Ez, he'll be lookin' to get outta here 'fore the end of the day."
"Can't let him up for the next twenty-four hours," Jackson warned as he joined the two near the door. "If he moves around too much, any poison still in his body can spread more. It'll jus' make him feel worse, could even spread to important organs that could cause all kinds of trouble." He stepped back to the table, picked up the mug with the steeping tea and handed it over to a quiet but restless Standish.
"Mistah Jackson," Ezra said in a pained whisper, "Ah do … hope that you h … have some of that tea … ready soon." His face was twisted up with pain, his forehead and wavy hair drenched in sweat. His eyes were closed and his keen senses were way off, having not noticed that the healer was already by his side.
"I got it here. First time I think you've ever asked for it."
"Sans doute," Standish replied in French. Chris shook his head with a sad grin and left to find Buck and J.D. Ezra started in on the tea.
"If it's easier to bear the pain with a grunt or a groan or just plain yellin', you should do it. Yer with friends here," Vin suggested.
"It's not, Vin. But th … thank you. Havin' you h … here does help." Standish leaned forward and moaned. Nathan took the mug before what little was left in it spilled. He curled up tighter than before around another powerful spasm. "Good lord almighty," he panted. Vin saw that Ezra had his hand fisted against his stomach, pressing hard. The tracker could take it no more and gently lifted his friend up and shimmied onto the bed. He leaned Ezra up against his chest, and then took his own hand and kept up a deep, soothing massage. He'd seen it done so often when he lived with the Comanches, when it happened that someone in the tribe ate something that turned out too dangerous to eat. The medicine men had shown him how to soothe the ache that sometimes lingered. The two friends stayed like that for a long, long time as the severe cramping ebbed and flowed. Despite the fact that the grunting, groaning or yelling wouldn't help, a fair amount of all three were heard through the window of Ezra's room as the pain would crescendo to near unbearable heights.
"Damn," Buck said as Chris finished explaining what they figured had happened to one of their own.
"Need you and J.D. to fetch Ephraim, bring him in. We can protect him better from here."
"He ain't hardly come to town since Carolyn … " J.D. began, though he saw from the looks on his fellow lawmen's faces that he didn't need to continue. Dunne had befriended the man, wanting so much to help this man when he'd been unable to do anything for Annie Neuhaus' widower. He didn't know what it felt like to lose a wife, but he'd seen firsthand what it had done to Annie's family after he'd inadvertently shot her during that failed bank robbery a couple of years earlier.
"'m not too sure he ain't just goin' through the motions of life, not really livin' since Bolton killed his wife." Buck Wilmington would be the expert on what that looked like; he'd been front and center living through a similar hell after Larabee lost Sarah and Adam. "May resist comin' in."
"No, he'll come in. He might not want to live, but he wants justice more. It's an open and shut case even without Ephraim's testimony, but he'll want to be there for the hangin'," Chris said with deep empathy. "It's after that's done that we'll really need to worry about him." He hoped that the people of Four Corners could do for Ephraim Grant what Buck Wilmington, and ultimately the rest of the seven, and this town, had done for him.
"How's Ez?" J.D. asked.
"Looks like he'll live, just won't be very pleasant for him for a while. Nathan thinks there might be a few different symptoms he'll be facing before he's better."
"Reckon he'll be up before you know it. Ain't much that'll keep ol' Ezra down," Buck said with an affectionate yet sorrowful smile.
"Nate says he ain't allowed to move for twenty-four hours," Chris explained. "Doesn't want to give any poison left a chance to spread to anything important."
"Ez ain't gonna like that," J.D. said.
"Maybe soon, but right now Ezra's too sick to even think about gettin' outta that nice bed of his."
"Vin with him?" Buck asked knowingly.
"Well, that seems about right. Come on, kid. Let's head on out and get Ephraim back here," Buck said as he stood and swiped J.D.'s hat off his head, knocking it to the ground.
"Damn it, Buck!" the youngest of the seven complained as he bent to pick up the hat that his best friend still, after three years, chastised him for wearing. "This is a new hat. I'd like it to last a little while." His last one had been ruined when Buck and Vin, egged on by the small wagering that Ezra had going on the side, had gotten bored and needed a distraction. They'd taken the on-its-last-legs hat and shot at it, each man trying to see first, how high they could make the derby-style hat fly, and second, how long they could keep it up in the air by the force of their bullets.
"Can't imagine why you wouldn't've got yourself a more reasonable hat, J.D.," Wilmington said as he was pushed to the door by Dunne. "Part of the reason for wearin' it is to keep the sun from your eyes and face. There's hardly enough brim on that fool hat to cover your hair." The two kept on arguing good-naturedly all the way to the livery. Larabee smiled. He was pretty sure the pair wouldn't stop talking for the entire ride to Ephraim Grant's homestead. And back.
Larabee looked over to the one occupied jail cell. He had better things to do than watch the town drunk sleep. He grabbed the key, unlocked the cell door and yelled, Matt!" A louder snore than all of the previous snoring ripped through the jailhouse. Chris grabbed a cup from near the coffeepot, scratched it back and forth across the bars of the cell and yelled even louder, "Matt Sweeney!" This time the man rose, nearly taking a header into the iron bars of the cell he occupied. Larabee stopped the man's forward momentum. "Get on home, Matt."
"I'm free to go-oh?" he belched, stale, foul breath – from alcohol and heaven knew what else – wafted across Chris' nose.
"Yeah," the lawman managed, keeping his mouth as closed as possible while he spoke in an attempt to avoid the stench that oozed from the man.
"'kay," he answered and headed unsteadily to the door.
"Matt," Chris called.
"Don't let me see you in the saloon any time soon," he warned. Larabee didn't care what the man did in his free time, but he wouldn't have him disturbing the peace again like he had earlier in the day. It had only been noon and the man was drunk as a skunk. Chris didn't know what demons Matt Sweeney faced that drove him to drink, and he certainly didn't feel any right to judge him, but he had a job to protect the town, and a drunken Matt Sweeney was a menace in a saloon.
The town drunk staggered away without a reply to the lawman.
Now that he'd taken care of emptying out the jail, Chris headed to see Mary Travis about what had happened and what else needed to be done. He found her heading to the restaurant. When she heard what was going on, she quickly went into the eating establishment and excused herself from the ladies that she regularly joined for supper on Wednesday evening.
"I'll get the telegraph sent right away," Mary agreed. "What about Mr. Grant?"
"J.D. and Buck went to bring him in."
"That's good. And how is Mr. Standish?" she asked.
Chris knew that the newspaper woman had come to care for the gambler. Though Ezra's mother had tried to insinuate herself as a friend, even confidante, to the widow, Mary Travis soon saw what Maude Standish was all about. Then, after Ezra had saved her life when the hired killer Stutz the younger had fired a gun, looking to shut her up at the hire of the territorial governor, Mary had made a number of attempts to thank him. Ezra hadn't wanted thanks. No, as Chris remembered it, Ezra hadn't wanted to discuss the situation, or think about it ever again. At least that's what he'd said to each of the other six, in one way or another, sometimes, would wonders never cease, without uttering a word. Chris knew, though, that Mary and Ezra had come to terms over the whole thing. Mary now comfortably called the man who saved her by his given name, Ezra still addressing her properly, most times, as a good southern gentleman should.
"He's sick. Hurtin'."
"Maybe I'll go over to check on him … " Chris interrupted her.
"No. I would wait. He's been sick and he won't want lots of people seein' him like that."
"But … "
"Nathan's there, and you know Vin'll make sure he's got everything he needs."
"They've grown quite close over these few years, haven't they?" Mary pondered.
"Yeah. The two of 'em together are more than twice as bad," Chris said with a grin.
Mary smiled. "Well, I know that you are only joking when you say that. I think it's wonderful. They're very different, but the things they needed were so very much the same."
Larabee looked at this woman, someone he'd looked at a lot over the soon-to-be three years the seven of them had been protecting the town. For some time it seemed he, Mary and everyone else in town was sure that they would get together. But as time went on, Larabee had come to realize that he no longer wanted what Mary Travis needed. He'd had his family, and he'd had it taken from him. He considered himself a strong man, and he would accept it whenever he and his fellow protectors of the town and surrounding area were labeled brave. But he had finally realized that he was not strong enough to try again for something that he was not brave enough to lose twice. He'd made his peace with that fact and with how his life would be. He knew that he would have to deal with that decision, and he would, once they got beyond this latest dilemma. Mary had to move on, just as he had. And much like how Ezra and Vin had found in each other a friendship that suited each of them, Chris felt that all of the seven men had found in each other a bond … a brotherhood that somehow made up for other parts of their lives that others might deem lacking. That brotherhood would be what would keep Chris Larabee in Four Corners.
"Reckon that's true, but there are still days when I want to shoot each of them separately, and then do it again with them together, just for fun," Chris replied, not wanting the conversation to go anywhere near as serious as his thoughts had.
"But today isn't one of those days."
Chris looked into Mary Travis' pale, worried eyes. It would be so easy to get lost in those eyes, to let the yearning that the woman clearly felt, to allow the emotion that she obviously felt but refused to take action on without some indication from Chris that it was welcome … to open up and allow her in. But he knew what was right, and that wasn't keeping the woman thinking that they had a future together. Once they were sure Ezra was all right and no longer a target, Chris would have that talk with the beautiful blonde.
"No, not today," he agreed.
"Well, tell Ezra that I'm thinking of him."
"I will." He walked away and then turned back, remembering the extra men he wanted covering Bolton. "Mary, could you send a telegraph to Sheriff Sullivan? Tell him to deputize some men. Bolton might try an escape once he hears he was successful in getting to Ezra."
Larabee headed back to the saloon and up the stairs to Standish's room. He opened the door and let himself in, not wanting to wake the man if he'd managed to get to sleep. He saw Tanner wedged up and under the ailing gambler, the crack shot's mare's leg pointing at Larabee's chest. The Texan lowered the weapon onto the edge of the bed. Standish seemed asleep, though he didn't seem to be soundly so. A grimace graced the normally smiling, handsome face. Larabee walked over to the far side of the bed. He sat on the floor, facing the former buffalo hunter.
"What's goin' on?" Chris whispered.
Vin replied even more softly, "Got bad cramps. Looks like this is the next symptom of whatever was used on 'im." Chris noticed the constant massage that Vin kept up. "Seems to soothe the ache some," he admitted. The gunslinger looked to the con man's face and the man providing the comfort added, "Just helps some. I can feel the spasms as they happen; they're just messin' with 'im somethin' fierce." Larabee continued to look puzzled at Tanner's position and his actions. "Learned it from a medicine man. It'll work, just needs time." Just as the sympathetic man finished his subdued justification for being in the awkward position, Ezra let out a moan, its high pitch surprising both men. He curled in even more and grabbed for his stomach. He found a hand already there and though he tried to relax, Ezra found the pain simply impossible to ignore. It woke him from his troubled sleep to find the worried face of Chris Larabee looking back at him.
"If y … you won't sh . . .shoot me, then maybe … ah!" Standish jerked forward further at the shock of pain from the most recent spasm, nearly falling from Tanner's grasp and into Larabee's lap.
"Take it easy, Ez," Vin soothed. With Chris's help they got the ailing man back up against Tanner.
"Ah am tryin', M … M … Mistah Tanner. Ah fail to recall … any wrong ah … have done of late … that earned … such torture," Ezra panted through the pain.
There was no doubt that this was true. If anything, he had almost saved the day as he patrolled past the Grant house, noticing right off that something was awry. His arrival just as Bolton drove the knife into Carolyn Grant still haunted him weeks after the event. The southerner knew that nothing he had done that day would have gotten him to the homestead any sooner. Fate had indeed been fickle on that lazy, cool spring morning, and not just because Josiah tied one on the previous night and was unable to cover his shift, thus forcing Ezra up at such an ungodly hour. Ephraim had been tied to a chair, his wrists bloody from his struggles against the rope, and watched as they attempted to take his wife. But Carolyn fought back, kicking her attacker hard and more than once in the groin. Bolton's anger usurped any lustful actions toward Mrs. Grant, and he had the knife in her stomach and turned it viciously as Ezra barreled through the front door and shot Frank Bolton in the arm. The gambler had taken a hard hit from one of Bolton's men, his shoulder dislocated once more as a result, but he still managed to shoot the man, and keep the other one under wraps. Bolton let go of the knife during all of this, but it was too late. Ezra pistol whipped the man to unconsciousness and held his gun on the one injured and two others in Bolton's party. He quickly cut Ephraim free, who dove for his wife only to see her eyes close and hear her sigh her last breath.
A man who had done what he had, and been so close to saving the woman, only to end up being just seconds too late – no, he had done nothing to earn any of the pain he was now suffering.
"That ain't what happened here. Ya got a vicious killer who now has you in his target," Chris explained. "We're contacting Sheriff Sullivan to put extra guards on the him until the trial."
"Trial was s'posed to be Friday, day after tomorrow. Ez might not be ready ta testify," Vin said.
"And the circus is coming to town," Chris noted dryly.
"C … Carnival, n … not circus," Ezra corrected. "And ah'll be ready."
"What's the difference?" Larabee asked, a note of annoyance in his voice. It didn't matter either way in his mind: the carnival, the circus, the trial. It was all too much to deal with. Who knew when Ezra would be better? Could be later today, could be days. Chris Larabee knew for sure on days like this that he wasn't being paid enough.
"He's asleep again," Vin said quietly.
"Good." Chris shook his head. "Trial's Friday morning. You think he's gonna be all right by then?" Chris asked Vin.
Tanner cocked his head slightly. "Could. Hard ta say. Nate thinks he may have more trouble before this is all outta his system. Did what he could with the charcoal stuff, but it's pretty clear some of it made it into his system." He shook his head as he looked down at his hurting friend. "Better let the judge know we need to do it here."
Chris nodded. "You want a break?"
"Nah. But if ya ain't got nothin' better ta do, I could use a little sleep. He's comfortable, and the spasms seem to have calmed a bit. Can you just stay while I catch some shuteye?"
"Sure. You want something to eat or drink first?"
"No. Just gotta rest some. Been a long day … " Vin trailed off on the last word as he fell quickly to sleep. Larabee always marveled at how the man could do that. Chris took Ezra's comfortable rocker and positioned it facing the door, with good line of sight to the window. He sat guard as his two friends slept.
The next morning, Buck and J.D. escorted Ephraim Grant into town. The man didn't look angry, just resigned to the fate of being watched for the next few days. They stopped at the jail where they found Josiah coming out the door.
"Good to see you, Ephraim," the big man said.
"Josiah," he acknowledged quietly. "Where do you want me?"
"Come with me, son." Sanchez looked down to Buck and J.D. "Go on ahead and see Chris over ta Ezra's."
"How is he?" Ephraim asked. Buck and J.D. had given him the details of why they needed him back in town.
"Better. Had a rough night, but he's better," Josiah answered.
Ephraim turned to J.D. "Tell 'im I'm sorry for what happened. I know it's 'cause he can testify about what Bolton done to Carolyn."
"You ain't got nothin' to be sorry for," J.D. replied. Realizing how what he said might sound to someone who had just lost his wife, he quickly added, "I mean, obviously Carolyn, uh … I mean …"
"It's all right, J.D. I know what you mean. I just feel bad about it. He coulda died."
"Naw," Buck said. "Ol' Ezra's tough as nails."
"Yeah," J.D. said. "But I'll tell him you were asking for him."
"'Preciate that." Grant turned to Sanchez. "I'm all yours," he said, much lighter of heart than any of them could have hoped he would sound. Josiah grabbed him across the shoulders and the two walked toward the church which, even after nearly three years, was still a work in progress.
"Think he'll be all right?" J.D. asked wistfully. Regret would be with him all his days; Annie Neuhaus' family had moved away before J.D. ever really had a chance to figure out how he could make amends for what he had done. Buck had tried to tell him that it was for the best, that Hiram Neuhaus, much like Chris Larabee, and despite the fact that Annie's death was an accident, would never really be able to forgive J.D., no matter what he did to try to make things right.
"With people like you and Josiah and Ezra helpin' him," – and here Buck stopped listing people, as the entire town had adopted the widower Grant as one of their own – "there ain't no doubt about it, kid," Buck said with affection for his young friend. J.D. smiled as he looked toward where Ephraim walked. He didn't respond, just kept watching. He raised his head to the clear blue sky. Buck was pretty sure what his friend was doing. He clasped the thoughtful young man on the shoulder. "What say we go find out for ourselves how Ez is doin'?"
"Sounds good," J.D. replied as he let his taller friend put his arm across his shoulders as he had seen Josiah do with Ephraim. It felt good to have such people in his life, he thought, as they headed to the saloon.
As they entered the darkened drinking establishment, Buck kept his normally boisterous greeting for Inez Recillos down, knowing that his voice could carry up those steps and wake his recuperating friend.
"Good morning, Inez," he said. Rather than flirt with the Mexican beauty, the ladies man got right down to business. "Vin and Chris been down?"
"Si, senor. Vin came down to arrange for breakfast for both of them."
"Nathan been by?"
"Yes. He left just a short time ago. He asked me to prepare some scrambled eggs and toast for Senor Standish. Would you like me to prepare something for you and J.D.?"
"That would be just fine, darlin'," the mustachioed man said as he couldn't resist just a little bit of flirting with the lovely senorita. "Give us about fifteen minutes?"
"Of course. Can you take Ezra's food to him?"
"It would be my pleasure, Inez," he replied, his eyes twinkling, a large, hopeful smile on this face. Inez handed over the tray and rolled her eyes. Her hair flew behind her as she turned and headed back to the kitchen.
"I'm wearin' her down."
"If you say so," J.D. countered .
"I do say so," Buck said as he reached to topple J.D.'s hat once more. The man from Boston ran ahead, staying out of the long reach of his friend as he took the stairs two at a time. He knew with the tray in hand, Buck wouldn't be able to keep up. The pair walked into the small room that Ezra kept above the saloon. They found the window and the curtains open, letting in a nice cool breeze. They found Chris and Vin diving into their meals, Chris sitting in the rocking chair, Vin perched at the edge of the bed, near Ezra's feet. When they looked to the bed, they were surprised to find the man of the hour awake.
"Hey, look at you!" Buck called, pleased to see his friend sitting up against the headboard. He was still in his nightshirt, but he definitely looked better than Buck thought he would, especially in light of the 'rough night' Josiah had mentioned. The closer he got, though, the easier it was to see that Ezra was certainly not over whatever ailed him due to the poisoning. He was finishing a glass of water as they shut the door behind them.
"How ya feelin', Ez?" J.D. asked.
"Much bettah, J.D."
"Josiah said you were better but that you had a rough night."
Ezra looked to Chris and Vin. The stomach pains had kept on, off and on, through the early morning hours. Then, what Nathan suggested might happen, did. A series of bouts of diarrhea hit the southerner. It kept him awake, and embarrassed that Vin and Chris were there to witness his weakness.
Wilmington handed the tray to his cohort then leaned over and put his hand to Standish's forehead. "Feelin' a little warm there, hoss."
"Ah b'lieve … " Ezra started, leaning back and pushing Buck's hand away, but Vin broke in.
"Nate says he's feverish."
"Guess so," Buck agreed. "Did he say if he knew what it was that was used?"
"Our fine healer … " the gamester tried again, but this time it was their leader who spoke up.
"No, but it's the next thing he's gonna do, some readin' up on poisons. He was here for part of the night, then got some sleep, and then came back."
"Ez, I got the food Inez sent up," J.D. noted as he lay a pillow on his friend's lap and then set the tray of food on it."
He sighed. "J.D., son, I don't … "
"Thanks, J.D.," Vin cut in. "Ez, ya gotta eat. You heard Nathan. It'll help with the runs you've been havin'."
"Mistah Tanner!" Standish shrieked.
"Vin," Chris said more calmly, a warning tone in his voice, directed at the tracker. He knew that there was little else that would rile the southerner more than a combination of someone butchering his beloved language and pointing out his weakness for all to hear. Chris hadn't missed the frown on J.D.'s face and the wince that Buck could not hide when Vin had spoken; he'd used the more common but still more pleasant term than what the man from Texas had used out of earshot of their ailing friend earlier. Even Chris wouldn't allow Vin to say "the shits" again. The use of that particular phrase might actually have caused their verbose friend to pass out from sheer mortification.
"Mistah Tanner … " the card sharp tried once more.
"Ezra, Nathan wants you to eat."
"Ah am … "
"You're not. Now eat," Chris ordered, hoping to forestall any more discussion of Ezra's most recent ailment due to whatever he'd ingested the previous day.
Ezra sighed once more, closed his eyes, and rested his head against the pillow. He put his hand up to his head and rubbed above and around his eyes with his thumb and middle finger.
"Gentlemen, ah believe ah am past the worst of this attempt on mah life. I am not dyin'. I appreciate your concern and all that you have done for me. Ah am rather tired and would ask that you all allow me some time to myself."
"Need ta eat," Vin insisted.
"Ah remember Mistah Jackson said if ah was up to it. Ah am not … "
"Said you thought you could eat just a little while ago," Chris reminded.
"Ah know ah said … "
"It's just some eggs and toast, Ez," J.D. encouraged. "Do ya need some help?" he asked earnestly as he moved back to the bed.
"Ah do not. Ah need … "
"Inez made this special for you," Buck urged.
"Please send the lovely lady my apologies." He rubbed his head once more. "Ah just don't … " Ezra was interrupted by a knock at the door, followed by the door opening, followed by the sizable presence of Josiah Sanchez, Ephraim Grant following.
"Brothers," he announced.
"Good lord," Ezra sighed softly.
"H … Hi, Ezra," Ephraim offered hesitantly. Standish leaned forward slightly to look beyond the large preacher, his stomach muscles complaining at the movement.
"Mistah Grant … "
"Won't eat," Vin grumbled to Josiah, hopeful that someone new to the conversation might have some positive effect getting the man to eat.
Ezra sighed. "As ah was tryin' to say to Mistah Tanner … "
"Nathan thinks it was all right for him to eat?" Josiah asked his question to everyone in the room except for the man in question.
"Gentlemen," Ezra tried to interject, but his fellow protectors of Four Corners were arguing amongst themselves. They ignored his call. He'd had more than enough of them all. His room had grown terribly small with the five of them, plus Ephraim Grant, standing and sitting around. He caught Ephraim's eye, who gave him an understanding smile. Ezra smiled back, but he lost the smile quickly as his headache flared. He moved the tray of food to his side table, Ephraim helping by picking up the recently used glass and setting it on the tray. Ezra thanked the young widower with a nod of his head. He tossed the extra pillow to the floor, eased himself down and on to his side. He held his other pillow up against his still-sore stomach, and promptly fell asleep.
Moments later, Nathan and Inez walked in on the discussion. They looked over to find Ezra sound asleep. The healer knew that Ezra could use the rest, with everything that he had suffered through these past fifteen or so hours. Just one of the man's symptoms could knock someone down for a day or more. Ezra surely didn't need all these people yelling and threatening with this ongoing argument to wake him up, though by the looks of him he seemed to be in a deep, and hopefully healing, sleep. Nathan was pleased to see the empty glass, which he had enhanced with nutrients, and honey and lemon to make it more appealing, knowing that his friend still lacked an appetite.
"Hey!" the healer called sharply. All five men involved in the conversation, and Grant who stood mutely to the side, turned and looked at Nathan.
"Get out," he said, firmly but quietly.
"He won't eat," Vin said.
"And he ain't goin' to now," Nathan answered reasonably. He nodded his head toward his recumbent patient. They all looked to the bed to find Ezra sleeping soundly, his mouth open slightly, sweaty wisps of hair sticking to his forehead. He had one pillow up under his abdomen as he slept half on his side and half on his stomach, the other under his head, a small wet spot growing slowly under his mouth.
Inez grabbed the tray and then said in a hushed tone, "Vamanos." The men all started to file out of Ezra's room.
"What about … " Vin started.
"I will see that he eats when he wakes," Inez assured the man from Texas. She knew that Vin was worried, but she also knew that Ezra could use the sleep; she'd been just down the hall as he struggled overnight, and the walls of the saloon were thin. She knew he'd been up much of the overnight hours.
"I'll stay with him," Nathan said. "I left a note on the door at the clinic about where I could be found." He set two volumes of medical texts on the dresser. "Got some readin' to do. It will be nice and quiet here with Ezra."
"I believe that is the first time that such words have ever been spoken," Josiah said laughingly.
"Have Inez send someone when you need a break," Chris advised as he left. He was the last to leave as he closed the door behind him.
"Okay, Ezra. Let's see if we can find out what happened to you." He looked at his sleeping friend, offered a sad smile and then got to work researching.
"He vas de best bus boy and all-around kitchen help dat ve ever had," Heiddeger said sourly. "He quit right after breakfast yesterday. I vas not told until dis morning."
"Appreciate you comin' in, Mr. Heiddeger," Chris said as he and J.D. continued to question the man.
"When did he start at the restaurant?" the young sheriff asked.
"I did check my records before I came here. It vas three veeks ago. In fact, it vas the day after poor Mrs. Grant vas killed." Chris and J.D. exchanged knowing looks. "Dat poor woman."
"Did he come recommended?" Larabee asked.
"No. He said he vas experienced in the kitchen, but I needed someone to clear de tables. He said dat he vould be around for only a veek, but he obviously knew his vay around a restaurant, and when he did not leave, I vas happy to keep him on."
"All right," Chris said as he stood. He reached out his hand to the German hotel proprietor. "Thank you."
"When I heard what had happened to Mr. Standish, I, how do you say, put two and two together. You believe dis boy tried to kill Mr. Standish?"
"Looks that way," Chris replied.
"He is likely 'long gone'?" Heiddeger asked, still not quite comfortable with all of the strange phrases Americans used, but clearly eager to try his hand at using them properly. Larabee just stared at him, which was all the answer that the businessman required. "How is Mr. Standish?"
"He'll be all right."
"Dat is good. He still has a free dinner at de restaurant, for what he did to save Mr. Grant. Vill you remind him?"
"I'll take care of that, Mr. Heiddeger," J.D. Dunne offered.
"Very good. Vell, good day," he said and then quickly made his way out of the jailhouse.
"That bus boy Cooper is the one who poisoned Ezra," Dunne said to Larabee as the tall man headed to the saloon.
"Looks like he did," the gunslinger agreed.
"He could be anywhere by now. He's got a twenty-four hour head start."
"Yeah, but I'll bet he's waiting somewhere with Bolton's gang." Chris put his hat on. "Stay here. I'll send Buck and Vin, too. Sheriff should be getting here with Bolton within the hour."
"You bet, Chris."
Larabee met Mary Travis on his way to the saloon. "Any word from the judge?"
"He'll be here on the three o'clock stage. He said he would have plenty of protection."
"Good." Chris felt compelled to say what he would say next, even though he knew that Mary was already fully aware of the threat. "Things could get dangerous. Bolton, and probably most of those who ride with him, are killers. They'll shoot first, target or bystander … " Mary Travis cut him off.
"This isn't new to me, Mr. Larabee. I lived here when it was far less civilized than it has been since you and the others have been protecting this town. I will admit to being glad that Billy is with his grandmother."
"That's good. Just … be careful." He shook his head. "And the damned circus is comin' to town."
"It's actually a carnival," Mary corrected.
"Whatever it is, it's a damned distraction."
"I agree, the timing is unfortunate. But they travel a circuit, and the children … they don't get a chance like this very often."
"Billy's missing it?" Chris asked.
"Yes, well, unfortunate timing," she said with a sad smile. As a mother, she would call it perfect timing.
"All right. I'll see you later."
"Be careful," she said.
"We will." He walked up the step and then into the saloon. He found Buck and Vin sitting at Ezra's table.
"Need you two over at the jail. Want to be ready once Sheriff Sullivan gets here with Bolton. Where's Josiah?"
"Over to the church. Buck told him to catch some shut-eye. Might not see much sleep for a while," Vin answered. He took a long draw from his cup of coffee.
"Carnival folk will start trickling in tomorrow. Josiah's got three extra men who volunteered their time to help watch over it once they heard what happened to Ezra," Buck said. "That's eleven total. Good o' them to help without bein' asked," he added.
"It's better than the eight we had before, but we gotta keep Ephraim and the judge safe besides Ezra," Chris reasoned. "Could use twice that many."
"Might need ta bring 'em all together, easier to watch over 'em," Vin offered.
"Keep 'em all at the church? End of town?"
"No, Buck. The circus is going to be out beyond the church."
"It's a carnival," Vin muttered as he sent a wicked grin over to Buck. Chris gave both of his friends the patented Larabee glower and then continued.
"If there's any shootin', women and kids could get in the way."
"Livery?" Vin asked.
"If Ezra's feelin' better and more aware, he won't go for that. He'd worry about his damn horse gettin' caught in the crossfire."
"'Fraid I'm with Ez on that one, old man," Buck retorted. "What about Potter's storeroom?"
"I don't like it. Ya can't expect Mrs. Potter to close with all these people in town and possible new business. And we can't put 'em all in the jail," Chris said with a slight snicker.
"Why not?" Vin asked. Buck and Chris looked at Tanner and then at each other.
"Well, hell. Why not?" Buck reiterated, clapping Vin hard on the back, dust flying around them like a puff of smoke.
"All right, the jail it is," Chris agreed. "How's Ezra?"
"Still not eatin' good," Vin groused.
"Bad headache now," Buck explained.
"Get on over to the jail. I'll go see when we can move Ezra over."
"Better you than me. He's meaner than a hive o' hornets been kicked by a mule," Buck said as he stood and followed Vin out the batwing doors.
Chris tapped on Ezra's door, announced himself, opened the door and walked in. "Nathan, found anything?" he asked.
"What exactly would be the point at this juncture?" a snippy Ezra Standish asked. The ill man moaned and turned to lay on his right side, placing his hand up against his head. "Nathan, please, would you cease your studies and pull those curtains?"
"I'm sorry, Ezra, but I still ain't found anything that would cause these exact symptoms."
"Mistah Larabee, would you please explain to Mistah Jackson that it does not matter!" A near sob followed as his voice rose to a near shout, causing his headache to spike with sharp pain.
"Nate, let's call it a day," Chris said softly as he walked over and pulled the curtains closed.
"But Chris … " Nathan started. The subdued, desperately grateful-sounding 'thank you' from Ezra stopped him cold. He closed the book and started to rise.
"Don't go anywhere. Need you to help me move Ezra to the jail."
"Why, pray tell, would ah want to transfer my misery over there rather than remain in the comfort of my room?" Ezra groaned into his pillow.
"Because we ain't got enough people to watch you, Ephraim, the judge, and all these people comin' in to town for the damn circus."
"Lord help me. It's a carnival, Mistah … "
"I swear, I have had it with you and Mary and everyone else correcting me on this. It don't matter what it is. It's a god-damned distraction and a nuisance and I'm close to closing the town down and keeping the carnival out until the trial is over!"
Ezra rolled to his back and placed his hand to his temple, rubbing it gingerly. "Mistah Larabee," he said reasonably and quietly so as not to aggravate the persistent ache to his head, "the lovely people of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana would be appalled that you would correlate their charming family-oriented open-air traveling festival with the garish behemoth of the stuffy three-ring circus with its distasteful sideshow attractions." He took a moment to rub his head more, and it was clear the talking was increasing his pain. "Besides, you cannot cancel. The children … "
"Believe me," Chris countered, his tone softer in deference to his friend's pain, "if I could manage it without gettin' lynched by all the mothers in town, I would. Anyway, we figured the jail would be the best place, least likely to cause innocent people to get hurt if things go bad."
Standish prepared himself to move. He doubted very much that he had the strength to make this move without both of his compatriots now in the room. Lord, this last day had been draining. As he steeled himself to rise from the bed, he frowned, looked over to Jackson, and asked, "Did I not hear someone at some point mention that I should not be moved for twenty-four hours? Has it been that long?"
"Close enough," Chris said, cutting Nathan off before he could answer. He thought better of the tactic as he saw the healer's worried expression, and Ezra practically swaying sitting down. "It is, ain't it?"
"Reckon so. If he was going to have some major organ shut down, we'd have seen symptoms of it by now."
"It is refreshing to hear that my cerebellum exploding through my skull does not qualify as major organ failure," Ezra noted caustically. Nathan laughed lightly and shook his head.
"All right," Chris said, hoping to avoid more sass from the southerner. "You ready."
"As ever ah can be," Ezra said as he pushed himself up. He immediately proved that his equilibrium was off after nearly a full day in a sickbed, and toppled straight into Chris' arms. "Ooomp," was heard as his nose slammed hard into Larabee's shoulder. "Ow," he complained, and then, ever courteous, followed it with, "Mah apologies. Ah seem to have misplaced mah sea legs."
"It's okay," the gunslinger said, amazed that Ezra could maintain his sense of humor after what he'd been through the last day. He kept one hand on Ezra's shoulder, the other – the one doing more good in keeping the ill man on his feet – open wide against his chest. "Nathan, you'll need to get one side."
"I can see," Jackson noted. "You sure this is the only way? He's really not up for this."
"Talked over the options earlier. There ain't a lot of 'em, and this one beats the rest. Should we get somethin' to carry him in?"
"He is right here and the answer to that is a resounding no." Larabee could feel the man trembling beneath his touch.
"If he says he can make it, I guess we have to trust that he can."
"Thank you, Nathan."
"If he can't, we can jus' get Josiah to come pick him up from where he fell," Nathan said with a smirk. Chris also laughed lightly at the suggestion.
"Rest assured, gentlemen, I shall not require the assistance of Mistah Sanchez." Ezra stood, steady due only to Chris' solid hold. He looked bad, dark smudges under his eyes, as pale as he'd ever looked, and he'd been injured and pale a fair amount these last few years. He was still experiencing the fever from earlier, though not quite as high. The fact that the miserable headache had taken hold and usurped a few degrees of said fever made Ezra feel as though he was still treading water with his recovery from the poisoning.
Ezra tried to head for the door but both of his friends held him back.
"You think maybe you should get dressed first?"
"It appears that one of my rooming companions has arrived," Ezra noted as he sat in the chair near the window. J.D. stood behind him, keeping an eye on the street with the poker player. There had been no talk in the jail as they waited, just the sound of the expertly shuffled cards, the only other movement when Ezra cut said cards one-handed. He did this all while keeping a steady eye on the goings-on outside. Vin sat in another chair, facing so he could see anyone entering from the front entrance, or barging in from the locked side one. Buck awaited the prisoner out on the boardwalk.
"Yer gonna keep yer head with this feller?" Vin asked softly as he rose to go outside.
"I am a professional, Mistah Tanner."
"Yer a professional who this feller tried to kill. Jest make sure you keep all them fancy weapons o' yers in their holsters."
Standish had been embarrassed once more in his attempt to leave his room in his nightshirt. The headache and the remnants of the fever had knocked him down; he'd not been thinking very clearly since the first signs of his debilitation nearly twenty hours previous. His friends had taken pity on him and not chided him, at least not too much. Larabee had mentioned something about making a habit of traipsing around town half naked. Ezra had taken it in stride. He'd been far less accommodating when his leader and the healer suggested that he remove himself to the jail without his regular and not insubstantial arsenal. He had allowed them to help him to dress, and then firmly, if inelegantly, parked himself on his fine featherbed until his two friends came to their senses. It hadn't taken long for them to realize that even with a splitting headache and feverish, Standish was still an excellent shot and could easily be counted as one and a half men in their group of protectors, so adept was he at manning two guns at once. His aim was fast and true, an excellent shot. They'd both seen Ezra hit targets in far worse shape than he was today.
"I have no inclination to draw unless forced to do so," Ezra replied as he rubbed at both sides of his head. Vin nodded to the southerner as he headed outside.
J.D. touched the gambler's back. "How 'bout we move you away from the window now?"
"As you wish," Ezra agreed. "Do you prefer that I take my place in the cell?"
"Nah, not yet. Let's wait 'til the judge gets here."
"Oh, the irony. The estimable Judge Oren Travis sharing a jail cell with Ezra P. Standish."
"It's just temporary, Ezra. And it'll be safer for both of you in there."
"I understand the reasoning, son."
The door opened just as Ezra took a seat at the far side of the desk. Vin came in first, followed by Frank Bolton, Sheriff Sullivan, a deputy, and then Buck.
Ezra's eyes met Vin's, a quizzical expression easily read by the tracker.
"The rest of the sheriff's party are watchin' outside," Vin noted in response to the silent query.
"Well, look who it is," Bolton said as he stared at Ezra.
"Indeed," Ezra replied calmly.
"Get in the cell," Sullivan ordered as he shoved the man toward the iron bars. Vin had already assured both the inner and outer doors were open. Bolton stood in the cell and continued to stare at the gambler. Ezra, for his part, had taken a seat in a chair, raised his feet up on the desk, and tipped his hat over his face as though he planned to take a nap. Only his friends in the room knew how much the action cost him, the abused body at the moment not really up for much more than lying down on the cot in the other cell.
"What about my hands?" Bolton asked all in the room, refusing to take his eyes off of one of two men who held it in their hands to have him hanged within a few days.
"Shut up," J.D. called to the prisoner.
"I'm behind bars. What can I do in this cell, son?"
Buck stormed up to the cell with his gun aimed at the killer. "Sit down, shut up, and do not call him son. Do you hear me?"
"I hear ya. What, ya taken a shinin' to that young 'un?"
Buck took one more step closer to the iron bars, and faster than expected, slammed the butt if his gun into Bolton's laughing mouth.
"Buck!" J.D. and Vin yelled.
"Mistah Wilmington, I believe you have made your point," Ezra said as he rose as fast as his unwilling body would allow. He grasped the imposing man's arm and started to pull him away from the cell. Buck, not yet ready to step away, pushed back against the hand that held him, knocking Ezra in the face with his arm. The smaller man, already unsteady from the constant ills he had suffered and continued to suffer since Bolton's man had tried to kill him, lost his balance and would have fallen back against the adjoining cell if not for the quick response of Four Corners' sheriff. J.D. was there to stop Ezra's fall and catch him before they both finally landed hard to the floor. The clatter of boots and guns and J.D.'s plaintive 'Ow' finally pulled Buck from his raging focus on Bolton. He looked to the right to find his two friends on the floor. On the left, he felt Vin's tight grip on his arm.
"Shit. Ezra, kid. Shit." He shook free of Vin's hold and moved quickly to his knee. "Ezra?"
"No, I am not all right," Ezra complained. "Help me up," he demanded, offering his hand. Buck grasped the hand, stood, and carefully pulled his friend up. The room dipped and spun and Ezra put his other hand out to steady himself. Vin grabbed it gently, aware of the still-healing shoulder. Ezra saw the man in buckskin in the swirl of the spinning room. "Ah need some air."
"Ez, I'm sorry," Buck pleaded, not releasing his hold on his sick friend. He knew that his words weren't enough; Ezra hardly acknowledged his presence. J.D. climbed to his feet and immediately checked that the prisoner wasn't trying to take advantage of the current confusion amongst the regulators, both Four Corners' own and those lending a hand from Silver Spring.
"Looks like your girlfriend is steppin' out on ya … son," Bolton said with a leer.
"Vin," Ezra said, his vivid green eyes pleading with the brilliant blue of the tracker. "I need some fresh air," he said once more, his accent thick, his need to remove himself from the room clear. Vin could hear in the voice and see in his friend's face both desperation to get out, and humiliation that he might do something in front of all of these people that, from the southerner's perspective, he could never rally from.
Ezra, for his part, was focused on Vin and only Vin. The room was growing smaller in the whirling tunnel that his dizziness created. The smell of sweat and horse, leather and the trail – and the hint of perfume that followed Wilmington everywhere he went – had become too much. Vin pulled Ezra from Buck's grasp, and hurried them out the door. Buck made to follow, but J.D. grabbed his arm.
"Need ya here, Buck."
"Yeah. Yeah," he responded. Buck turned to his friend. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'll have a bruise on my butt, but I'm fine."
"Maybe your girlfriend with the pretty pink shirt can kiss it and make it better," Bolton said.
"Shut up!" Buck, J.D., Sheriff Sullivan and the deputy all yelled.
"Well, since it bothers ever'one so much, I don't think I will." He kept up a steady conversation with nobody as the rest of them stepped out to the boardwalk.
"Grady and Clinton, take a turn inside," Sullivan ordered the two men who stood outside. To Buck and J.D. he said, "Man didn't say two sentences the entire ride here. Somethin' about you folks riled him up but good."
"He's days from danglin' from a rope," Chris Larabee said as he joined them in front of the jailhouse. "Bound to put a man off his feed." He looked at all of these men … too many men outside for his taste. "What's goin' on?"
"Prisoner is bein' difficult," J.D. responded.
"That's a nice way of puttin' it," Buck countered, his eyes focused in the direction Vin had rushed Ezra off in.
"Who's inside with Bolton?" Chris asked, noticing that Buck's eyes were focused down the road from the jail.
"Two of my best men. Got another two at the back entrance, outside," Sheriff Sullivan replied. "Judge Travis asked us to stick around 'til after the trial."
Chris nodded. "Good." He looked around, frowned, and asked, "Where's Ezra?"
"He's with Vin," Buck answered. Chris sensed something wrong with the way his old friend responded.
"Where's Vin?" he asked, his confused anger evident to all.
"They were headed toward the livery," Buck said, his head now looking down at his feet.
"Damn it, Buck." Chris didn't know what had happened, but he could tell from his long-time friend's response that it was something Buck said or did or could have handled better that was the reason the sick man wasn't resting in a chair inside the jail. "Stay alert. I'll go bring 'em back." Chris stomped down the main street of Four Corners. Not a soul thought it wise to get in his way.
"Damn it, Buck!" J.D. shouted, shoving the taller man's shoulder. "What the hell were you thinkin'? I can take care of myself," J.D. yelled at his friend. As he looked around and saw his counterpart from Silver Spring and the deputy watching them and hearing their conversation, J.D. spoke once more, only loud enough for Buck to hear. "Ya gotta stop doin' that. I can handle it."
"Damn it, J.D. I know you're right. I don't know what happened. I guess I was just usin' what he said about ya as an excuse, tryin' to get back at him for what he did to Ezra."
"Didn't work out so good, did it?"
"Not really. Forgive me?"
"I'm fine, and I forgive you. Can't speak for Ezra."
"Yeah. Hope he's all right."
"Vin and Chris'll take care of him. Let's get inside."
Chris was a building away from the livery when he heard a scuffling noise and then Vin's soft twang down the alley. He rushed over as he saw Ezra sitting on the ground. He passed a smelly puddle of recent vomit as he joined his fellow lawmen.
"Everything all right?" he asked.
"Not hardly," Vin replied. Ezra had his handkerchief out and was wiping the sweat and remnants of sickness from his face.
"Ah will be … fine," Ezra objected. "Ah just need … a few moments."
Chris didn't really want any explanations right then. All he really wanted was to get Ezra somewhere safer than where they were. He gave the man one moment – not a few – and said, "Let's get you back to the jail." He and Vin picked Ezra up, waited to make sure he was steady, and then headed back the way they'd all come. As they turned out of the alley onto the main thoroughfare, the crack of a rifle sent all three men back for cover.
"Came from the other side of the livery," Vin said.
"Yeah. Could have just been fired to make us move to a better spot for them."
"Could be. Or they wanna draw the others away from the jail. Either way, we can't stay here."
"We have no outlet down this particular side street," Ezra noted. Chris noted how much paler his friend was now than when they had first moved him to the jail earlier.
"Vin, I'm gonna run over to those crates," Chris said. "If they try for me … "
"When they try for you. When," Ezra reiterated. "Ah do not want you … "
"We can't stay here, Ezra. And maybe Nathan was in the clinic. If he was, we'll have cover from both sides of the street, cause whether we like it or not, Buck and J.D. heard that and they'll be comin', too."
Ezra knew there was no choice. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was such a nice day, and looked like there would be lovely weather for the carnival. Why, then, did he feel like he was burning in Hades. He knew it wasn't the gunfight; he'd been feeling for some time that this might be something that he may never recover from.
"Go," the ailing lawman said, reluctantly. He held his Remington ready, but felt anything but ready to fire it. He felt shaky and sick and sick-at-heart that he was unprepared to cover the backs of his friends.
Chris rushed out and sprinted for the large wooden crates. Bullets followed him from multiple directions. Ezra saw someone shooting from atop the building two doors from the livery. He took aim and fired, hitting his target dead center in the chest. The man fell the two stories and landed on the hard ground, unmoving. Vin's mare's leg echoed, and Ezra saw another one fall. Bullets were still coming furiously toward the alley, and both Ezra and Vin spotted wood chips and chunks flying from the crates that protected Chris.
"We need to re-direct the firepower aimed at Chris," Ezra yelled, his infirmity of just moments ago forgotten in the heat of battle, a battle to save a friend.
"Can't go out there. What's left of the shooters seem to have damn good aim," Vin said as a bullet ricocheted off the corner of the building that caused a breeze strong enough to billow the brim of his hat.
"We cannot leave him there. He is the proverbial sitting duck." They heard a gunshot from up above. They saw Nathan, who waved his gun toward the bank. Both men saw the former slave's victim, crawling on the ground to get out of sight. A shot came from the other direction; it was Buck, sending a bullet toward the injured man, forcing him into a corner, but one that could be well-covered by Vin and Ezra.
"Nate's headin' next door," Vin said and he nodded his head up. "Bet he's goin' for the third floor. That'll be good cover from there."
"Yes," Ezra replied softly as he took several deep breaths.
Alarm bells went off with the scruffy man who seemed so in tune with the other who was so very different from him; one word replies were never a good thing when Ezra Standish was the one doing the talking, and it shot Vin's worry way up.
"Ezra?" he asked. He could see his sick friend leaning against the building, looking just about ready to keel over.
"Ah am fine," he assured his friend. "Just takin' a breath." Vin ran across the alley to Ezra's position. A smaller number of bullets followed him, decidedly smaller, none hitting their target.
"Don't look fine."
"As Mistah Wilmington would say, that is quite impossible. Ah am fine, and you took an unacceptable risk in comin' over here."
Vin shrugged. "Made it in one piece." He grinned at his friend and then said, "Come on, we gotta finish this. Gotta get you layin' down," Vin said worriedly. He put his filthy hand up to his friend's forehead. It felt hot enough to fry an egg. The exertion, the sun and his fever and headache, and generally unwell state … they all seemed to work at once to put the man at the end of his rope, so to speak. And that was obvious to Vin when Ezra didn't complain about being touched by a hand dirtied with dust and gunpowder.
They headed to the corner of the building once more, to find J.D. and Buck with three unarmed men walking ahead of them.
"Nate, go look at that one over there," Chris said. He was carrying the man's weapons, as well as the guns of the one who plummeted to his death, felled by Ezra's expert aim. He walked up to his friend, who was flushed but working hard not to show how poorly he felt, as though that was a con he could have any success with on this day.
"It appears that we missed something," Ezra said to Vin as Chris stopped in front of him.
"Bolton's gang gave up once they saw one dead, one coulda been dead, and the rest of our boys closing in."
"Sounds like these fellas wanna have a chat with the judge when he arrives," Buck said. He looked at Ezra. "You all right."
"Ah have had better days, Buck."
"Ez … I … "
"There is no need to continue, Mistah Wilmington. I had accepted your apology earlier, there was just no way to tell you that at the time." The rush to get out was all that mattered at the time. Vin hadn't gotten him very far down the street before he had to run to the alley, where he lost what little food he'd managed to eat since waking up that morning.
Nathan joined them. "I patched him up," he said as he held his gun on the injured shooter. "I need someone to take this one. I got something on what happened to Ezra. Need him to come to the clinic."
"You know what it was?" J.D. asked.
"Let's get these men over to the jail," Chris said. They heard the sound of the stagecoach arriving. "Buck, tell the judge about these men, arrange for them to talk to him as soon as possible. We'll let you know what Nathan says about Ezra." He looked at Vin, but knew he would make no headway convincing the stubborn Texan that he could leave his equally stubborn southern friend for a little while. Chris shook his head. "Vin, take Ezra to Nathan's. I'll follow once I'm done with the judge."
"Thanks," Vin said, knowing that the infamous gunman wanted to hear what Nathan had to say just as much as Vin did. They watched as Chris headed to the jail.
"Come on, let's go," Nathan encouraged.
"By the look on your face, Nathan, I would say that I might be lucky to be alive," Ezra said tiredly.
Nathan looked him gently in the eyes. "You are, but we have to do somethin' soon to make sure you stay that way."
"Good lord, what was I poisoned with?" Ezra asked, shakier from the knowledge that he could be dead but for fate and good friends.
"Believe it or not, mushrooms."
"In the water?" Vin asked.
"No, I don't think that's likely. Chris said you all ate the same things over the last few days. You sure about that?" he asked of the sick man. "There wasn't nothin' else you had that the other fellas didn't?"
Ezra rubbed his head and then wiped the sweat from his forehead for what seemed the hundredth time that day. "Ah … ah … " Ezra paused, lowered his head, shook it slightly and looked into the healers eyes. "Honestly, Mistah Jackson, ah cannot remember what ah did when. Ah … " he looked around, and then turned worried eyes first to Vin, and then to Nathan. "Ah … " he began again, but he never finished, his eyes rolling up and his body folding toward the ground. His friends gathered him between them and carried the man to the clinic.
Ezra Standish opened tired eyes to find Judge Oren Travis staring at him.
"Ah see … " he started. He coughed, cleared his throat, and began again. "Ah see they have indeed placed us in the same cell," he said, his throat feeling gritty. "Mah apologies, good sir."
"We're not in jail, Standish," the judge said as he made Ezra take a drink. "You're in Mr. Jackson's clinic."
"Is that so?" he asked, perplexed. "Thank you," he said, for the cool water. "Then why are you here?" He settled wearily back into the pillow.
"Just wanted to be the one to tell you that you won't have to testify. With Mr. Grant and some of Bolton's men turning on him, we have plenty of evidence to convict."
Ezra's eyes blinked tiredly, a frown coming to his handsome but still pale face. "Ah am quite able and willin' … " he started, but was cut off by the voice of the town's healer.
"You ain't able, Ezra. And you won't be testifying. You will be drinking this for me," he said as he helped the ailing man to once again sit up so that he could accept the cup's contents.
"What, may I ask, is this?" He saw the fading light, but could make no sense of what time of day it was, or whether they were still in the same day that he last remembered. "What time is it?"
"Dinnertime. You've been out for a few hours. Been waitin' for you to wake up to get this seed down you," Nathan noted.
"Seed? What … seed?"
"Milk thistle seed. It'll help prevent any damage to your liver and kidney from the mushrooms."
"You don't remember?" Nathan asked worriedly.
"Mistah Jackson," Ezra pleaded. "Ah haven't the wherewithal right now to remember mah middle name. What is goin' on?"
Chris stepped in to his line of sight. "Drink Nate's … " he wasn't quite sure what to call it. "Drink," he insisted. "I'll get ya up to speed on what's happened."
Ezra leaned over and swallowed what Nathan offered. He coughed, as though he would be expelling it right quick. "Gotta take this, Ezra." Ezra knew he had to. He knew and trusted the black man well enough to accept that he would not force upon him something so vile without cause. Ezra finished the drink with a groan.
"That is revolting. You are tellin' me that you could not have found a bettah way to prepare it to make it more palatable?"
"Need the seeds as fresh and strong as possible."
"Good lord. Could ah have … " Before he could ask the question, Chris held a another cup of fresh, cool water to Ezra's lips. "Thank you," he said after taking his fill.
"You're welcome. Now just lay back and listen," Chris ordered. He sat in the chair that Oren had just vacated.
"Well, Standish, get better. Listen to Mr. Jackson. I'll stop in here again before I leave after the trial," the judge said as he headed for the door.
"I will not still be here then, I can assure you. But it would be my pleasure to be there to see you off to your lovely wife." Travis laughed as he opened the door and left.
"What was so amusing about that?" Ezra asked.
"You ain't goin' anywhere for a while," Chris said. The gunslinger turned to Nathan. "You wanna take a break? I can stay for a while."
"Mistah Jackson?" Ezra questioned. Chris nodded to Nathan and the healer left. "Mistah Larabee?" Ezra asked, confusion tingeing his words.
"Nathan says that to be sure you get better, he wants you to stay put."
"Stay put?" Ezra queried. His eyes grew wide. "Stay put … here? I cannot stay put in mah room?"
"Sorry, Ez. Nate needs to give you more of that stuff, and he needs to make sure you don't overdo it. He's insisted on two days."
"And because we are all crazy and want ya to be around for a long time, we're all gonna make sure you do what you're told."
"Chris, ah assure you, ah can follow the rules of our fine healer. Ah do not have a death wish."
"You got involved in a gunfight when you were supposed to be takin' it easy in the jail," Chris reminded.
"Circumstances dictated … " he started. He stopped, though, as he saw the worry written all over the normally stoic face. Ezra would never describe Chris Larabee as inscrutable; the commanding blond's temper prevented that appellation. Stoic, yes, and when he didn't want anyone to see his feelings, he even leaned a little toward inscrutable. He was heading that way now. Ezra was well-schooled at reading people, and right now, he read deep concern. "Ah will be a model patient, if for no other reason than it will get me out of this … lovely, charmingly lit room sooner." The light in the room barely gave the men the chance to see one another as the daylight waned and the oil lamps and candles had not yet been lit.
"And Frank Bolton?"
"Yeah. His men, including the kid who poisoned you, gave up and most of 'em are willing to testify. The ones that saw what he did to Carolyn Grant and the kid admitted he poisoned you at the request of Bolton."
"A surprisin' and convenient turn of events," Ezra noted.
"You think it's not over?"
"As ah said before, ah am not at the top of mah game just now. Ah barely know up from down." Ezra yawned. "Don't mind me," he said as he closed his eyes and his head settled into the pillow. "Ah do, though, have an uncanny ability to make a person forget their troubles," he added as he opened his eyes and stared straight in to Chris'. Chris stared back for a long while, finally conceding a mild grin toward the frustrating man lying before him.
"Like you planned this to take my mind off of my troubles."
"Ah did not say that."
"Ya kinda did."
Ezra's eyebrows went up, but contra to the conversation they were enjoying, he asked, "This is mah pilla, is it not?" He snuggled, cozy as could be, into its softness as he closed his eyes, breathing a contented sigh.
"Nathan had J.D. fetch it, since you'd be here for a while."
"Convey my gratitude on their thoughtfulness for me?" the tired man asked.
"You're not stayin' awake for any more of my story?" Chris asked with an affectionate smile.
"Trial's a fo'gone conclus'n?" Ezra slurred
"Carn'val's still on?"
"You've plenty o' men to assure th' safety o' one 'nd all durin' the fest've cel'brat'n of the carn'val?"
"I can take a hint, Ezra. Rest well."
"Thank … " the weary man didn't finish before he was sound asleep, but the sentiment rang crystal clear to the grateful man by his side. How he would have hurt had Ezra died? They all would. Chris shook his head, stood up and looked at Nathan's table. One of his medical books was open to the poisonous mushroom section. He grabbed the book, lit a lamp nearby, went back to his seat, and began reading about what almost killed his friend.
About an hour later Nathan returned. He saw the book resting on the knee of the studious man. "It was a close one. If that boy Cooper had picked a different mushroom, he'd be dead by now."
"How'd he get Ezra ta eat it? Mushrooms mostly have a pretty distinct smell." He knew this, but had also read up on it in the medical book.
"If it's the one I think it is, he wouldn't've needed much to make Ezra as sick as he's been. Did Cooper serve you the food?"
"Then he must have known which plate to pick. What'd ya'll have?"
"Eggs, ham, biscuits, coffee. And Ezra's water."
"Nah-uh, it wouldn't be the water. Ezra would have smelled it, and you know damn well he wouldna drunk it."
"Would you?" Chris asked.
"Not likely. How were the eggs served?"
"Scrambled, with some tomatoes and onions. Ezra said it would be good. It was. We were all beat and it seemed the quickest way to get in and out and get some rest."
Nathan nodded. "Cooper might've watched Ez for a couple of days. Maybe he knew he didn't eat big plates of food." The door opened and Vin Tanner walked in.
"We all ordered the same thing," Chris challenged. "Plates were filled with the same thing."
"Not 'xactly," Vin said quietly as he moved the one remaining chair closer to Ezra's bed on the opposite side of Chris. "How's he doin'?"
"Been sleeping sound," Chris told his friend. "What do you mean, not exactly?"
"Remember, when Gloria brought the food out, Ezra looked at each plate and then he switched with me. Mine had a smaller pile o' eggs on it." Chris looked at Vin in frustration, and then looked to Nathan. The healer and the leader shook their heads.
"It's a tell ah won't offer up again," Ezra said softly.
"You're supposed to be sleeping," Nathan chastised.
"A lively conversation pulled me from an unpleasant dream. I shall sleep later," Ezra said. "So, I assisted this Cooper miscreant in his poisoning endeavor?"
"Ain't no way you'd know that he was studyin' ya like that," Vin said.
"Ah don't know about that, Mistah Tanner. It is one of my specialties, readin' people."
"He was just a bus boy … you probably didn't even notice him." Chris tried to help his poker playing friend understand that he couldn't watch every person, couldn't see what was in everyone's mind, or heart, be it in this particular case evil, as with Frank Bolton, or misguided, as with the kitchen worker at Heiddeger's. The Cooper kid cried a long time as he told his story to the judge. Travis had told him that with the intent to kill, he had to hold him for trial. But Chris would have a conversation with the southerner about that; the judge had said that he would consider Ezra's wishes in how he handled the boy.
"That is neither here nor there, Chris. I still … "
"Yes, Mistah Tanner?"
"Why don't you just not worry about it for now and get some more sleep. Yer eyes've been more shut than opened since you woke up," Vin told him.
"Before you do that, I have ta ask you a question," Chris said.
"Ya can't do that later?" Nathan asked. He would prefer to see Ezra sleeping now, too.
"Won't take long."
"What is it, Chris?" Ezra asked before a wide yawn. "Apologies."
"What do you wanna do about Cooper?"
"What do you mean?"
"Judge wants to know if he should try him on attempted murder," Chris started.
"It seems like the proper charge," Ezra said, confused as to why he was being asked.
"The kid seems genuinely sorry for what he did. Was practically cryin' in the judge's lap." Ezra looked Chris in the eyes. He knew the answer the gunslinger wanted; he clearly felt that this person had something redeemable about him. It reminded the con man of that moment at the Seminole village, when Chris threatened him to never run out on him again. What Ezra heard over the harsh words was, 'I'm giving you a second chance'. Was Ezra the man he thought he was, the man he hoped Chris thought he was? Could he be as forgiving? He didn't know. It was still so hard to think when his foremost thought was that by all rights he should be dead.
"Chris, could I have some time to think about it?"
"Of course." Ezra's stomach grumbled loudly in the immediate quiet.
"Mistah Jackson, I know you would like for me to sleep, but I believe some sustenance would go a long way to a sound one."
"I'll go get it, Nate."
"Thank you, Vin."
The sun shone brilliantly in the sky on this last day of the visiting carnival from Louisiana. Vin took a seat next to the sharply dressed man who sat contentedly in the shade of the big oak tree, his fancy booted ankles crossed, the waistcoat shimmering in the rays of the sun, his white shirt brilliant and blinding, his back up against the tree's trunk, a soft towel folded as a pillow to ease any ache from his neck. The man dozed comfortably, a smile on his face, his head tilted in what would have been an unpleasant position save for the bundled cloth. A blanket kept his fine clothing from getting dirty. The sounds of merriment resounded – children of all ages laughing, singing, even screeching, ribald laughter from the men, an occasional giggle from a woman being wooed by a suitor, the music, many voices familiar, others not so - all a soothing balm to the man who might not have made it to see this Sunday, or any new day ever again. Bolton was dead, the judge deciding that a midnight hanging the day of his conviction would disrupt the peace of the town less than making a man's hanging the exclamation point to the weekend's carnival atmosphere. And Ezra had, in the end, after meeting with the young man who tried to kill him on Bolton's behalf, agreed to give him a second chance.
"Mistah Tanner," he said, making the tracker jump slightly.
"Thought you were sleepin'."
"I was, and I have been much of this fine day. The carnival seems to have been a success."
"I am glad that our fearless leader did not cancel it. The children would have been disappointed." The games and the storytelling and the bringing of the community together had been a balm to one and all, not just the healing lawman. The carnival had been blessed with surprisingly pleasant weather, the normal heat and dusty wind not in sight for even one moment. The pretty blue skies and brilliant sunshine combined with the colorfully costumed folks from Plaquemines Parish - and booths of game and food vendors, musicians, dancers and others - made for a kaleidoscopic rainbow in the brown of the southwestern desert.
"Got a question for ya."
"Ask away, my friend," Ezra said, not opening his eyes.
"How is it, 'xactly, that a carnival from New Orleans would make its way to our little town?"
"Well, that is a curiosity, Mistah Tanner. And they are not from New Orleans, specifically, which is in Orleans Parish. They are from Plaquemines, farther south."
"I don't think it's curious at all," Vin said, waiting for more from his friend, but recognizing that what had already been said told the entire story. Ezra opened his eyes briefly and smiled at his good friend. He cocked his head and then closed his eyes once more, and raised his face to the sky, catching a burst of sun as it shone through the leaves of the shading oak.
He rolled his head to Vin and said, without opening his eyes, "I believe that this town, and these people, have earned these last days." Vin nodded, a smile adorning his handsome face as he watched children chasing one another, heard Josiah's booming voice as he heralded the start of the three-legged race. He saw Chris having what appeared to be an intimate conversation with Mary Travis, the serious look on her face a strange counterpoint to the day's pleasantries. Nathan had a booth he was manning, much to the gambler's chagrin, that warned of the dangers of ingesting wild mushrooms, as well as what to do before placing one in your mouth. He had even put together his own sign for the event, titled, 'Mush Rooms!', with a picture of a dog sled with mushrooms in place of dogs and a very Nathan-looking person manning the sled. Ezra had complained about the horrible marketing attempt, but he had argued even more forcefully that a carnival was not the appropriate venue for such a display. He had been voted down handily, six-to-one, on that. Ezra had convinced Nathan to include some good with all of the negative news at his stall: a small book of mushroom recipes, which Mary had been more than happy to print off for free. In the distance Vin could see J.D. and Buck heading their way, Casey waltzing in between them, occasionally backwards, each trying to keep a dripping treat from slopping on their fronts. He saw Ephraim Grant standing at the end of the three-legged race, ready to name a winner. He could also see that he wasn't going to get his southern friend to admit his part in getting the carnival to travel all this way out west.
"And what about you?" Vin asked.
Ezra took a moment before answering. How could he say what these days, what every new day meant to him? These men, this life that he'd made in this dusty frontier village … . Words, as critical a part of his armament as any gun currently worn on his person – no words seemed to come to him that could properly express how he felt. But he had faith, not a religious faith, but faith in the men he worked with, these fine and brave men among whose names he was now so proud, and at last willing, to place his own. He had faith in the plucky populace in this town that managed day after day to advance from the back-water, dangerous town it once was to a place he was now, as shocking as it seemed, content in calling home. And he had faith that the right words would come, even if they weren't there on the tip of his tongue, as they so often were.
"Ah … " he started, but seemed to choke up unexpectedly. He turned to Vin, eyes open and moist as he thought … as he felt of what it meant to have people like Vin and Chris and the others in his life who cared enough to ask the question. For all his life, he never thought he could feel like this. "Vin," he continued, "ah believe that mah life is quite satisfactory."