"Aw, hell," Vin Tanner said from his crouched position as he took in all of the signs left by the men they were tracking.
"What?" Chris Larabee asked, fully aware that he wasn't going to like what his friend had to say.
Vin stood, and with no effort at disguising it, stretched with difficulty. His body was angry at his actions over these last days. The man was in pain, which was obvious from the grimace on the otherwise handsome-though-scruffy face. They had been on the trail of Merle and Harlen Pierce for three days. Chris and Vin were looking like that was the case, their three day beards impossible to ignore as they both felt the discomfort of the dirt that accumulated over the long day of tracking and riding. The third member of their small posse? Clean-shaven as always.
"They headed in."
"Good lord. We are not goin' in after them." Though it was a statement, Ezra Standish knew that the leader of their band of lawmen from Four Corners would hear it as a question. Luckily, Vin jumped in to answer before Chris could get his hackles up about Ezra's clear desire to turn home and call it a day. Rather … three days.
"We gotta. This is rough canyon, but it ain't all that long. Could easily get away."
"But Mistah Tanner, it is already three o'clock," Ezra began his argument as he wiped the accumulated dust from his watch face. He looked to the sky and added, "Those are not kind clouds on the horizon." He put his watch away and tightened his scarf around his neck. The weather, finally, had decided to show it was getting close to Christmas.
"You sayin' it's too late in the day and not nice enough for you to continue looking for the men who shot Josiah and killed Tom?"
Vin would swear he'd seen Ezra flinch before he responded evenly, "No, Mistah Larabee. That is not remotely what Ah am sayin'. What Ah am sayin' is that the likelihood of us catching up to these miscreants is lower with the darkening of the skies and the dampening of the ground." Though they had been woefully lacking in anything resembling rain or snow in far too long, Ezra would have hoped for no weather and been satisfied to continue on with just the dark as an impediment. His look to Vin was one of challenge. 'Can you deny what Ah am sayin'?' he asked silently. Chris wasn't the only one the former bounty hunter could communicate with silently.
"Ya ain't wrong, Ezra, but that don't mean I think we should quit tryin'."
"Of course it doesn't," the southerner countered dryly. "Carry on," he added, waving his hand for the tracker to precede him. It was their regular order when the three of them rode together, for a purpose such as this: Vin in the lead, Ezra behind him, and Chris covering the rear … and their backs. When their acquaintance was newer, it was nothing but disconcerting to ride ahead of Chris; Ezra could feel those steely eyes burning a hole in the back of his head. Luckily, the flames were figurative. Even more fortunately, their relationship had progressed to the point where the gambler was happy to have the man at his back, most notably because he could always count on the man to cover it. They had quickly learned that they could trust one another, though Chris seemed decidedly slower in acknowledging his trust of Ezra in ways other than assuring their safety. That his six law enforcement partners were still working to trust Ezra in other ways was painfully obvious, even just now. Chris questioned his commitment to the mission; Vin questioned his judgment that it was unwise to continue forward with both timing and the natural world working against them.
Vin, riding Peso, took the lead. He ventured forward, slowly, carefully. All three men were familiar with the treacherous going ahead of them at the intake of Fischer Rocks Canyon, thus named by the long gone family who had homesteaded there years ago. Its name was well-earned: many a body had been known to enter the large crevasse in the earth healthy and whole and to come out not so. Many more had not made their way out at all, as the canyon was well-remembered by all who had made it through by the bones left scattered throughout the giant gorge. This, the westernmost entry to the canyon, was wilderness. No true path had been forged, new rocks forever falling, leaving a pebble, rock and oft-times boulder-strewn path. It was no wonder the Fischers abandoned it. And each one of the three men knew that the canyon held any number of places where the surviving Pierce brothers could lie in wait and surprise them. It would have been beyond Ezra's comprehension why his two compatriots would risk it if it hadn't been for what was done in town. To Josiah.
Tom Arthur died in much the same manner as the last town undertaker. No, not in defense of the body of a dead innocent, as happened the last time, when the youngest member of The Magnificent Seven had accidentally killed Annie Heuhaus during a foiled bank robbery attempt, her body stolen in error by Achilles Thompson. No, Tom died as he took his turn in aiding the men who normally protected the town. They had been short two of their number three days before, with Nathan Jackson out at the Seminole village, and Josiah Sanchez visiting the reservation. The former preacher happened upon a shootout as he returned. He would easily have been killed except for Tom's excellent aim as he caught Merle Pierce in the thigh with a shot from his rifle. Josiah did take a bullet, high up on his shoulder, near his neck. It was a bad hit, and with Nathan unavailable, it was left to the women of the town to help keep him stable as J.D. Dunne raced to retrieve the healer out at the Indian village.
Tom's heroic shot that saved Josiah's life had left him open and vulnerable. The third Pierce brother, Ethan, took his opportunity and shot the undertaker and town veterinarian in the back. Buck Wilmington and Chris both fired, killing Tom's murderer without hesitation; the kill brought woefully little satisfaction to either man. Ezra was the first to make it to their dying friend's side. All Tom said before succumbing was 'My children'. Ezra heard Mrs. Potter's 'Dear God!' behind him through the smashed window of her mercantile. She had heard what was said, and with thoughts of the horror of the same thing ever having to face her own children, immediately offered to watch the brother and sister as Chris, Vin and Ezra quickly headed out to try to capture the Pierces.
The question that lingered: What would become of the children upon the lawmen's return? A widowed mother of two who ran one of the major businesses in town couldn't be asked to take on the responsibility for two newly parentless children on top of two of her own.
Tom had become well-acquainted with the Seven, often acting as an eighth regulator for the town. Many of the adult male citizens of Four Corners had helped the team of lawmen that Judge Orin Travis had hired when some of them needed to be away from town, or if they were sick or recovering from injury. Tom Arthur, though busy as the town's veterinarian, less busy as the undertaker, and always busy as the widower father of two youngsters, still often managed to be first in line to help when help was called for.
Ezra knew he hadn't felt the full impact of losing Tom. The man had become an important member of their community. He was also, as Tom himself had coined it, a 'dab hand' at cards, the Englishman in him, by way of the East Coast, coming through from time to time. He brought something else from his home country: a wry and sometimes off kilter sense of humor. Often Ezra was the only one witness to the humor, inside jokes – much like an inside straight – greatly satisfying to the sophisticated and learned southerner. Not all of Tom's foolery required an education to get the joke; sometimes it was just being privy to Tom's sidelong glances that would force Ezra to turn away from the object of the joke in order to hide his amusement. And that's not to say that it was only citizens of Four Corners who were a focus of Tom's keen eye and hilarious take on life. Many of those passing through were targets, as was Vin's ornery horse, even Ezra's talented and well-loved steed, much to Ezra's chagrin.
When there was more time, once they had caught the men responsible for the death of this good man, once they were off the trail and back to the comfort of their town, seated at the saloon with a drink in their hand in salute to their lost friend, only then would the real pain of losing Tom Arthur really and truly be felt.
They continued to ride in silence as Vin occasionally stopped to check for tracks or other indicators that they were still moving in the right direction. That effort seemed more futile the darker it got.
"Gloria got lucky, again," Chris said out of the blue as he watched Vin painfully make his way back into his saddle.
"Ah suppose Mistah Arthur had a hand in that?"
"Don't know for sure," their leader said. "Need to see what Josiah has to say." They had been in a hurry to get out of town, and not all of the details of what had gone on had been disseminated to everyone, as Vin noted next.
""It weren't 'siah got 'em out o' Potter's. Saw him come runnin' from the church when he heard the first shot."
"God damn him," Ezra uttered under his breath, but the still quiet of early evening carried the sound as they made their way into the heart of the canyon.
"Ya ain't blamin' Tom," Chris said in challenge to Ezra's last observation, his voice rising in anger.
"Guess he is, maybe a little," Vin replied.
"Ya ain't," Chris said.
"It really was simply a mattah of time, Ah suppose," Ezra started softly in response to the accusation. "It is one thing to obey your commands in an effort to protect our town and its citizenry, Mistah Larabee. It is something altogether different to now be expected to follow your directions in what Ah think, in how Ah feel."
"I wasn't sayin' that," Chris countered in his own defense.
"Ah believe you … " Ezra didn't finish his thought as the echo of a gunshot was heard. They were far enough into the canyon that the rock walls played tricks on where each man thought the shot had come from. Or rather, two of the men were fooled by that echo. A grunt was heard, followed by Ezra toppling from his horse to the rocky ground.
"Shit. Stay down, Vin. Ezra's hit."
"Wha' a brilliant obs'vation."
"Shut up, Ezra," Chris ordered, belying how grateful he was to hear the man's lilting, and many, many times, annoying voice.
"An' Ah thought y'might be r'lieved that Ah wasn't now 'mong the dearly d'parted."
"Quiet down, Ezra," Vin said.
"Could Ah ask … " the gambler tried, but was shut down immediately by both of his friends.
"Quiet!" Chris and Vin said firmly, softly, but loud enough for Ezra to get it, to understand the need for stealth, even in his current stunned state. They couldn't tell yet what had felled him, and Ezra was still plastered, face down, to the ground, so he could not see the obvious relief on the faces of his friends that the talkative man was still talking.
"Sorry," Ezra mumbled, louder than he should, though he was pretty out of it and likely didn't realize it as he tried to talk over the ground at his mouth.
"Quiet, Ez," Vin said as he pressed his hand to Ezra's back. "Chris, no more shooting."
"Yeah. Looks like they took their shots and high-tailed it."
"They were just lookin' to slow us down," Vin added.
"You gen'lemen," Ezra said, this time barely loud enough to be heard, "should continue after T … Tom's murderers. Ah c … can manage just f … fine … "
"Forget it, Ezra. We're takin' ya back," Vin stated. None of them knew just how bad off Ezra was, but he hadn't moved yet, which said an awful lot.
"No." Ezra forced himself onto his side, but only managed to get his legs moved. He was feeling rather numb, unsure what it was that was forcing him to remain in the now awkward position.
"Stay put," Chris said. Ezra felt a firm hand rubbing his shoulder. "Let us get a look at you." Ezra thought that it must be Chris' hand on his shoulder as he heard boots scuffing about over near the horses … but no jingle of spurs. Vin wore them, but not all of the time, and not on this day.
"Ah concede Ah do not f … feel at mah best," the former con man admitted.
"Don't doubt it, pard," Vin agreed as he dropped bedrolls and saddlebags nearby. The angry skies Ezra had made note of earlier remained a concern, though they had fortunately been spared any rain or snow so far on their journey. The threat of rain or snow had been there for days as the holiday approached. Four Corners needed the precipitation, and the children had been excited about the prospect of a white Christmas with the cold weather, but the threat had remained much like Chris' threat on Ezra's life at the beginning of their time protecting the small western town. The area could do with a deluge and many had hoped that Mother Earth would come through with her threat. Chris? He surprised himself that day when he finally realized that Ezra was no longer the annoying nemesis he had considered him to be, just an annoying, true friend.
"The brothers are g … gettin' away."
"You feelin' cold?" Chris asked as he and Vin settled Ezra to the ground, on his back. Ezra trembled, his teeth chattering, his words slurred and not as smoothly delivered as they were used to, either the silkiness of the accent or the sophistication of the delivery.
A 'Hmm' of agreement turned quickly to a moan of pain as Vin wiped the blood from above Ezra's right eye.
"Bastard gotcha on the forehead," Vin told him as he cleared away more of the blood.
"A glancin' blow," the southerner agreed. Ezra coughed.
"You hurt anywhere else?" Chris had already checked for broken bones in the gambler's arms and legs. Perforations seemed to be concentrated on just Ezra's head, which all of his friends would agree was hard. They would also agree that he needed to duck more, as Ezra had suffered more than his share of hits to the head over the three years they had all worked together.
Ezra coughed again. "Ah swallowed s … some dust upon mah inglorious l … landin'."
Chris looked at the spot on the road where Ezra had ended up. A large, sharp rock lay in the spot. He shook his head, looked up to the sky and said, "Let's get a look at his chest." Vin looked questioningly to his friend; Chris looked toward the rock but said nothing, worry evident in each silent glance.
"Why?" Ezra asked, followed by another cough, and then by an ungentlemanly spit of dirty saliva. The fast action required to rise up to a sitting position clearly pained him as he reached his hand to his lower chest, groaned again, and said, "Mah apologies for m … mah unseemly actions." He coughed once more and then added, "Ah see why you ask, n … now."
"Jest lay back," Vin said as he propped his and Chris' bedrolls behind his ailing friend, and then placed Ezra's blanket around the chilled man. "Prob'ly jest bruised yer chest some when ya fell."
"Ah did not fall."
"We ain't bein' critical, Ezra. Don't know why ya have ta be so specific with yer words."
"Vin," Chris warned, but it was too late. If Vin didn't think Ezra would respond to such an observation, then Chris figured Vin didn't know their friend as well as he thought.
"Mistah Tanner," Ezra started. Chris glared at Vin, telling him in his silent way to set things straight.
"Aw, hell," Vin interjected. "Stop!" he ordered, placing his hand on Ezra's chest, carefully. "Yer right, it is important to be clear … concise." Chris' eyebrow rose at the use of the word. 'Concise' is not a word that was in Vin Tanner's vocabulary, at least not until Ezra Standish made his way into their lives. "Think ya need to save yer breath for, you know, breathing, at least jest now."
"Ah defer to your w … wise council." Ezra closed his eyes and just breathed while Chris and Vin undid all of his garb to get a look at what they were sure they would find. The bruising was already apparent, but the fact that Ezra was talking and that his breathing seemed better the longer he stayed put and didn't talk gave them hope that it was nothing more than a bad bruise. He'd obviously inhaled some dirt when he landed; he coughed and rid his body of sandy sputum twice more, and then insisted that he be raised so that he could blow the dirt from his nose as well.
"Hold on. I need to check yer chest, make sure nothin's broken."
"It's fine, Mistah Tanner."
"It ain't fine. Let Vin feel yer chest," Chris demanded.
"Ah don't normally let it get that far on a first date," Ezra joked.
"Very funny. Now shut up and let me feel ya up." Chris snorted and Ezra laughed, too, followed by a slight cough. "Sorry fer makin' ya laugh."
"It's fine. Please," Ezra said as he waved his hand to indicate his person, "be mah guest."
Vin examined Ezra as he remembered Nathan showing him he should. With a sigh, he finished. "Feels good."
"You boys need me to step away for a bit?" Chris asked with a smile, his tone light. They didn't have a lot to feel lighthearted about. Josiah was seriously injured, Tom was dead. The men who instigated it all were getting away. Ezra was hurt. It was dark, cold and dampness threatened. But Ezra wasn't dead, and the Pierces were likely heading well in the opposite direction of them and Four Corners; they weren't the types to care one way or the other about leaving behind a dead brother.
"Ah'm not sure, Vin … was that humor?"
Vin grinned. "Yer guess's as good as mine, pard."
"What do either of you know?" Chris asked as he grabbed his canteen and readied it for Ezra to get a drink.
"Can Ah take care of the dirt in mah nose now?" Vin helped Ezra into a sitting position, and Ezra blew his nose. "Disgusting," he said as he looked at the mess he'd made of his fine linen handkerchief.
"Set up camp?" Chris asked. Vin nodded.
"Set up camp?" Ezra asked. "We need not stay out heah. If we are not venturing forth to apprehend those … " he paused to take a deep breath, surprised and infinitely pleased that it did not bring on a cough or elicit any worse pain than he'd already felt, " … miscreants, we might as well start makin' our way home."
Chris lowered his head and smiled. In spite of the fact that all of the Seven would have bet that Chris would be the last to admit it, especially in light of how dear the word had been to him … in the past, it was, in fact, Ezra Standish who was the last of them to finally admit that Four Corners was home. But getting home tonight seemed unlikely and unwise, and certainly an unhealthy proposition for one of them.
Chris raised his head and said sympathetically, "I want to get home as much as you do, but it would be better for you to rest up some."
"Ah can 'rest up some' when we get back to town," Chris's voice and inflection mimicked to perfection.
Chris and Vin looked to one another, exchanging a seemingly silent conversation.
"Good lord!" Ezra exclaimed. "Ah am still heah!" Vin snorted a laugh. Ezra rubbed his chest. "You may find this amusing, Mistah Tanner, and maybe on any other day of the yeah it is, but Ah just don't, well, maybe it is just me who cannot find anything funny today."
Chris and Vin shared another look, Ezra huffed, and then coughed. Vin said, "We take it real easy."
"And you tell us when you need a break," Chris added.
"Need to agree and not complain when we tell ya it's time to rest, eat or drink," Vin continued.
"And you promise not to talk," Chris said.
"Then we can head on back." Vin finished.
Ezra looked from one friend to the next and back. He lowered his head, considering the exchange, and then raised his head, cocked it to the side and asked, "Are these terms negotiable?"
"Man, he's a stubborn son-of-a-bitch."
"Buck. Sssh," the town's healer admonished. Buck had met the tired trio as they and their weary horses inched into town earlier in the day, bedraggled, cold and damp … and Ezra seemingly asleep in his saddle, Vin riding close in case he started to tip over and tumble from his beloved Chaucer, though that seemed unlikely: Chaucer was one damned smooth ride.
"Yes, Buck, Ah am the only one of our illustrious group who qualifies for that moniker," Ezra noted sarcastically as he yawned his way to wakefulness.
"Damn it, Buck," Nathan said. "He ain't been asleep but a couple of hours."
"Sorry, Nate. I just figured Ez would be too sound asleep to hear me."
"Then would it not be more appropriate to send your apology in mah direction?" Ezra asked quietly. His chest didn't feel quite up to talking much. Odd.
"Yeah, it would," Nathan agreed. "Apologize to the man."
"Good. Now git. My patient needs rest and you ain't helpin' any," the black man said as he rose from his seat, grabbed Buck at the elbow and walked him to the door.
Buck opened the door and said, "Well, excuse me for carin'."
"Buck," Ezra called.
"Quiet, Ezra," Nathan ordered. He turned to Buck. "Do you see what I'm saying?"
"If you wanted me to stay quiet, all you had to do was say so, Nathan." Nathan stared at the lean gunman, and then turned and walked away. Buck turned to Ezra and asked, "You want me to stay? I can be a buffer between you and Nate."
"Actually, you can stay or you can go, b … but could you p … please m … make up your m … mind and shut th … the door? It's f … freezing out theah."
"Buck," Nathan warned.
"All right, all right, I'm goin'. I'll be back to check on ya later, Ez."
"Tomorrow," Nathan stated firmly.
"You bet," Buck said to the exasperated former slave. To Ezra he said, "Rest, and listen to Nathan." That made Ezra laugh, after the man had just offered to be his 'buffer', but the laugh was followed by an unexpected cough. Nathan stared Buck right out the door and then turned to face Ezra. He found his patient frowning.
The frown was more for the cough and the pain, but Ezra hid that fact by focusing on Buck. "You seemed particularly upset with Mistah Wilmington. Is there somethin' Ah need to know?" Ezra asked, followed by an expansive yawn. "Goodness. Mah apologies."
"Why you gotta do that? It's just us here, just you and me. You don't need to apologize for bein' tired," the healer said as he sat down next to the patient and started to remove the blanket and then told Ezra to sit up so that he could remove the nightshirt.
"Well, Mistah Jackson, I was raised … "
"Yeah, I know how you was raised," Nathan answered, biting, condescending, derogatory.
Ezra blinked and then rubbed his forehead. Something was going on here, but Ezra was having a hard time keeping his concentration on the issue at hand. Had he just been insulted? "Ah thought … well … nevermind." He didn't have the energy to get into this right now, whatever this was. He looked around the room. "Nathan, wh … where is Josiah?" He chose not to address the slight, the rudeness and what could be called nothing less than an admonishment, indeed an affront he was sure had been unearned. He didn't know how to answer something when he had no idea why he'd been spoken to in such a way. It had been some time since Nathan had treated him like that. A long, long time.
That wasn't exactly what he had asked, but he guessed it would suffice for now. Ezra allowed himself to settle back into the pillows. Though he wouldn't admit it to Nathan, Buck's visit had been more stressful than he realized. And then not seeing Josiah in the clinic with him had gotten his heart racing. That would never work, with Nathan readying to examine him. He needed to give himself a chance to calm down before his friend got to doctoring up close and personal.
"Come on, Ezra. I need you to sit up. Gotta get your gown off in order to check you out."
"It is not a gown. It is a nightshirt," Ezra grouched.
"Whatever. Now come on."
"How is Vin? His back … "
"Vin's fine. Now sit up."
Ezra took a deep breath. Hadn't doing that felt better as they started on the ride back home? He needed the air, because it seemed a conversation with the former slave was in order after all.
"No?" the healer questioned.
"Ah said no. Before we move on to anything else, maybe you could enlighten me as to what Ah have done that has so offended you." They stared at one another, Nathan being the first to look away. Ezra frowned and said, "You cannot deny that something is amiss." The black man looked back to the recuperating white one with what looked to Ezra like pain in his eyes, though the anger from before lingered. "Ah honestly do not … know what Ah have done. Ah … assure you that Ah am nothin' … but thankful to be in your … care. To have you as … mah friend." He barely had the breath to complete the thought.
Nathan kept staring and finally asked, "Are you finished?"
Ezra could tell by the ache in his chest that he truly was done. He placed his hand on his chest, where it hurt, and then, knowing better than to speak at just this moment, nodded in the affirmative.
"I told you earlier to be quiet," Nathan noted. "Will you now listen to me about that? Your chest hurts and you're out of breath, right?" Ezra nodded a yes. "That's because talking is not the best thing for you right now. Can you sit and stay quiet?" Again, Ezra nodded that he would. "You know how bad off you are right now?" Ezra cocked his head, shrugged his shoulder, opened his mouth to answer, but shut it right quick at the look Nathan sent him. He shook his head no. "You have a punctured lung. Vin missed it, though it would have been hard for anyone other than a doctor to find it … "
"Or you," Ezra noted. Fire seemed to flame from Nathan's eyes. Ezra placed both hands up in appeasement, and then waved his hand to indicate that his friend should continue.
"Vin missed it and he's upset about it so I don't want you givin' him a hard time." Ezra placed his hand to his chest once more, his eyebrows raised, green eyes wide open and as innocent as Ezra Standish could manage; Nathan was sure he heard 'Moi', except he'd been watching and Ezra hadn't actually opened his mouth. Unless the southerner had added ventriloquism to his list of talents, Nathan knew it had been imagined, but would certainly have been spoken if Ezra weren't, finally, listening to him. "That punctured lung was minor, based on what Vin and Chris described of your symptoms. You coulda gotten back safe and without trouble if you'd'a just given yourself a day to heal. But you had to get on a horse and ride, and that was what did you in."
"Nathan," Ezra tried, but the healer would not stand for Ezra talking just yet.
"Don't even try, Ezra. I thought we were friends."
Ezra sighed. He had to keep talking, even if it was going to make Nathan more irate than he already was. "We are." Ezra couldn't care about Nathan's threats; there was something more important that needed to be fixed than his lung.
"We ain't. You risked your life, Ezra. From what Chris and Vin said, you all had no chance of getting those brothers once you got hurt. If we really were friends, you would remember the things I tell you about healin'. There was no threat to you other than some dirt and maybe a little bit of rain."
"A little bit of rain?" Ezra returned with a huff. He took a breath, clearly wincing at the pain. Nathan turned and picked up the mug of tea he had steeping.
"Here, drink this." Both men decided on a minor truce as Ezra took the drink. The vileness of the curative shocked him every time. He coughed, not from his injured lung but from the near-poison he just swallowed. He made the usual fuss, giving himself a chance to ponder Nathan's anger. The man had denied their friendship. The gambler knew it was not true, that it was fear talking more than anything. He supposed he should be flattered, and he was, to a great degree. But he didn't like this feeling, this animosity between himself and one of his compatriots, especially this compatriot, a man with whom he shared very little when they first met. Or, at least, that was what he had thought. He soon learned that they had more in common than they had differences. Ezra loved … yes, that was the correct word, he loved all six of these men too much, too much to allow this kind of disagreement to fester. And maybe that was what Nathan was having trouble saying. Ezra didn't blame him; putting the thought to words seemed a daunting task.
Before long, Nathan was by the gambler's side, taking the empty mug from Ezra's lax hand. "We'll do the exam later," he said quietly. Ezra blinked once, then again. The faintest 'I'm sorry' came from his lips. "I know. Me, too. We'll talk later." He set the cup down, pulled the covers up over Ezra's chest, removing the hand that had settled over his chest to lay it on the bed against the prone body. The ailing man opened his eyes, the expressive eyes baring his sorrow at their impasse. "Don't worry. Go to sleep. We're fine." Nathan brushed Ezra's hair up off his slightly sweaty forehead. A barely-there fever was to be expected; the healer hoped he could keep it from becoming something more.
"Chris." The tall blond stepped up from the last step to the landing outside Nathan's clinic. The healer was outside shaking out some wet rags and hanging them on a clothes line.
"How's he doin'?"
"Pretty good. Sleeping a lot. Damned lucky." Nathan stabbed at the cloth with pins as though he wanted to injure them.
"Lucky to have someone like you to care for him."
"He don't act very grateful."
"Nathan, you can't be mad at him. None of us thought he was as bad off as he was."
Nathan stopped hanging his cloths out to dry. "Chris, I … he … ah, hell … I don't even know what I'm sayin' anymore. He … he just … "
"Drives you crazy."
Nathan slapped his hands together in frustration. "Yeah! Yes, he drives me crazy. I shouldn't let him, but he does."
"Look, we're all kind of stuck with the fact that we care about him, even though he doesn't really accept the caring as well as we think he should."
"You think he ever will?"
"He's closer to it than ya think," Vin said as he joined his friends on the landing.
"He hides it good," Chris commented.
"Yeah, well, it hurts to open up ta people and then feel disappointment when they let ya down."
"We ain't gonna let him down," Nathan insisted.
"He knows. It's just years of practice keeping yerself from gettin' hurt; takes some time to change yer ways."
"Sounds like you're talking from experience," Chris said empathetically.
Vin shrugged uncomfortably. And he changed the subject.
"If he ain't yet, he will be soon," the former slave said as he got back to hanging the rags out. "Go on in, Mrs. Potter will be by soon with something for him to eat. Might as well get up now."
Ezra's two travel companions entered the clinic. Despite the heat from the wood stove, which felt good as Chris and Vin entered the room, is was amazing how quickly it felt cold in the room after sitting in it for a while. Ezra was bundled in several layers of blankets, so he was feeling none of the breeze making its way through the slats of the cheaply built walls. Once Josiah was well enough, they would all need to get busy making this room more hospitable.
The healing man groaned, breathed deeply and then said, "Mistah Tanner?"
"Yeah, it's me an' Chris."
"Ah know." He blinked his eyes and worked his way out of his long sleep.
"Wanted … wait, how'd you know?"
"Vin, what's the matter with you? He could smell you a mile away," Chris said with a friendly grin.
"And he could hear you a mile away with those damn spurs. Hell, I don't know how you 'spect to sneak up on anything with them things."
"Maybe if you wore 'em more that damn mule of yours would go in a straight line for a change."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen. Don't make me get out of mah sickbed to break up this fight."
"Ain't a fight," Vin said.
"Just a difference of opinion," Chris said in agreement.
"Very well. To what do Ah owe this visit." Ezra tried to sit up in the bed, but found that pushing only made his chest ache. "Would you kindly help me up?" he asked both men. They went to either side of the bed and did all of the work to get the gambler sitting up against several pillows. "Now, why is it again that you are both here?"
"Came to apologize," Vin said.
Ezra looked first to Vin, and then to Chris. He shook his head slightly. "Wh … What for?" he asked, surprised.
"Vin here feels bad … "
"He shouldn't," Ezra said, thinking this was about not noticing the punctured lung. Ezra doubted he'd have been able to recognize such an injury, either.
"I do. I shoulda listened about the weather and dusk. If we'd just headed back … "
"We could not," Ezra assured him.
"Well, maybe Vin don't have anything to apologize for, but I do. I accused you of not caring about Josiah or Tom. I was wrong. I think maybe you care too much."
"That may or may not be." Ezra didn't want this conversation, so he changed direction. He could show caring about the children; that was something that would never make him feel uncomfortable, caring about the well-being of the children. There had been loss in their town, loss of life of children in the past, to violent acts. He hated that Tom had been killed, but he thanked any god who would listen that the children had been safely in school when the shooting broke out at the mercantile. These children were spared, as it should be, but oh how their lives had been torn asunder. "What of Tom's children?"
Chris lowered his eyes and shook his head. "The Judge," he started as he raised his eyes to look squarely at Ezra, "is checking to make sure, but based on what Mary has been able to learn, there is no family to take them."
"No, there isn't. Tom had told me that he had no siblings, his parents and his wife's parents were both gone, he and his wife were only children, with no aunts or uncles still alive. He had come to consider all of us … " Ezra choked on his words, suddenly unable to go on.
"He thought of lots of us as his family. His kids are our kids," Vin said.
Ezra quickly recovered and said, "It is Christmas in a few days. Judge Travis will likely find a family who will take those dear children away from heah. We must give them a Christmas with people they know, with people who care for them, with people they know cared about their father."
"We will. It's the least we can do," Chris said.
Vin started to pace, and then turned, "Ain't there no one here who can take them in?"
"Vin, those with families already have it hard enough out here," Chris said.
"We could consider … " Ezra stopped and looked out the window, in deep thought. Could they do this? Would they?
"Ezra?" Chris said.
"Ah may have an idea."
"You can see why he was so good at conning people," Josiah said with admiration.
Vin and Chris smirked. Nathan looked like a proud papa, his admiration for the southerner had never been so pronounced. Buck nodded in warm agreement. J.D. Where the hell was J.D.?
"J.D.! J.D.!" Aaron and Annie screamed, along with a dozen other children of the town, all bundled up for the cold weather … but still no rain or snow. J.D., with little Fred the hound dog running along behind him, was placing the next child up on Chaucer. Fred sat just the right distance away, as Ezra had taught him, to be far enough away from sharp, heavy hooves … just in case.
"Ready?" J.D. asked. Jenny Sheridan said, 'Yes!', her smile as wide as it could be. "Aaron, you're next," the youngest of the lawmen called to Tom Arthur's young son. J.D. was taking the kids out for a ride on Chaucer as Ezra continued to recuperate from his chest injury. He had been allowed out of the clinic, but he was under strict orders to rest. Bed rest was a threat should he not abide the simple instruction from Nathan. Ezra had learned a lesson in that regard that he was not about to ignore, not with the events unfolding before him. Little Aaron and Annie went and sat down on the dusty ground next to the little orange and white dog and petted him as they waited their turn, their new sister taking the spot on the ground next to Aaron, placing her arm around his tiny shoulder.
"How'd you do it, Ez?" Buck asked.
"As you are aware, Abigail and Robert Merton have one lovely daughter, Emily."
"That ain't news, Ezra," Josiah said.
"Indeed it is not, Mistah Sanchez. They are doin' well financially, and they are the most decent and upstanding people. Ah just presumed that maybe they could take in another child."
"Or two," Chris said as he sized up the seventh member of their group. Ezra knew something that they didn't, and the man seemed intent to keep it that way.
People in town often forgot that Abigail was not a single mother. Her husband spent far more time out at their ranch than he did in town in the building that the Mertons purchased, the building that previously housed the seamstress who had been victim to a serial killer. Abigail now sewed the hems of pants and took in the waists of dresses for the town. When Robert was in town, it was pretty clear that the love affair he and his wife shared was a special one. But there was something else that Ezra had surmised from just watching them: why would two people so in love have stopped at just one child? The answer became more than obvious the longer Ezra was forced to stay in his sick bed in the clinic. That knowledge, though, was of a personal nature, and not something that he would be sharing with his law enforcement brethren. That was for the Mertons to decide to disseminate to anyone other than the knowing former con man.
"That's it?" Buck asked.
"That is it, Mistah Wilmington."
"Nah, I think there's more to it."
"Well, you keep on figuring on it, Buck. Maybe you'll figure it out."
"Well, Chris, maybe I will," Buck said. The ladies man's eye was caught by a billowing green dress down the avenue. "Miss Martha!" he called as his long legs took the steps easily to the ground and he trotted toward the pretty woman.
"So much for that," Josiah said.
"Indeed," Ezra said with a smile. Buck would forget about the conversation in no time, his … mind overcome with other more important endeavors.
Vin came out to the boardwalk with a mug of coffee for himself and one for Ezra. "Here ya go."
"Thank you, Vin."
"What happened to Buck?" the tracker asked.
"Guess," Chris, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra all said at once. Ezra nodded his head down the avenue. Vin snorted.
It was Christmas eve. And though sadness still lingered – Tom Arthur's death was ten days fresh in everyone's heavy hearts –it seemed that the children of the town, and the town of Four Corners itself, had figured out a way forward. They could never forget that one of their own had been killed so violently, and they would work every possible angle to apprehend the Pierces and bring them to justice. And though Tom's children were likely not through shedding tears, they knew that they were loved. For now, that was all that mattered.