A/N: This is the final story in the Strange Bedfellows series – yay! Reading order is: Strange Bedfellows, Three Strikes and You're Out, Devil to Pay, Chicago or Bust, The Box of Delights, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, The Dark Backward and Hazardous Compromises. All here on ffnet and also on AO3 under my author name JoJo. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, sorry it's taken so long! And thanks again to fara and niko for their beta skills and all-round awesomeness. All mistakes my own.
"operations were too often frightful alternatives or hazardous compromises; and they were not seldom considered rather as the resource of despair than as a means of remedy;..."
(Sir John Forbes, Scottish physician to Queen Victoria, writing about nineteenth century surgery – see end for full quotation)
Their dispersal from the saloon is haphazard. As if they're already half stunned, don't know exactly where they should go or even, for sure, why. The question of exactly how urgently they need to find Ezra seems open to interpretation, and yet a shared fear burns between them. There's a whiff of suspicion too—maybe they're each wondering what the rest might know but they don't.
"Take it easy," Nathan says. "He can't be in his right mind."
Josiah's limbs feel unwieldy. None of them have exactly said any of it out loud, made real what Ezra might be about to do, might already have done. Perhaps some loyalty keeps them quiet. Maybe it's something less noble, that to say what they think might reflect badly on themselves. Their fear is contained, but Josiah feels it lodged under his ribs, something spiteful that won't digest.
"He may do it," he says, clear and forthright so they all understand. "He came to see me and there was something... Lord save us, I believe he may do it."
They look at him, restless, anxious to go. They don't want to believe that, perhaps, but not one of them disputes Josiah's words.
Ezra is running away from them, that's the truth of the matter.
Undoubtedly he's afraid—but it's not just the inherent horror of the knife. He's running away from that of course, and from them, but mainly perhaps from himself. To seek a conclusion he prefers without risk of interference. Good sense, cowardice or desperation—whatever Ezra's motivation is it makes Josiah want to double up and retch into the dust. Because, after weeks of imagining that such desperation was held far enough at bay, now he can picture the act happening, can almost smell the blood and cordite.
It's dusk now, purple and misty. There's a faint chill in the breeze that worries at Josiah's collar.
No point going in any social spaces, he thinks, absently aware of J.D. disappearing towards Digger Dave's. Ezra isn't going calling, or gambling, he isn't going to see anyone, talk to anyone. Hell no, he's beyond that, and he'll want to find somewhere he can be alone.
J.D. and Buck say they'll cover the other saloon, the hotels at the north end of town. Chris makes first for the Clarion, to hope that Mary's nose for trouble will have been twitching. Nathan and Vin have gone to the livery at a gallop, to see if Ezra went for his horse. Josiah sees Vin emerge from the big double doors, wave a hand to post a negative. Nathan's right behind him, and they head back in the other direction, towards the restaurant and bath house. Places where Ezra goes.
So, he's on foot.
And trying to get... where, exactly?
Josiah's alert for the sound of a gunshot, rising on the evening air. Well, isn't he always? But now, unspeakably, it's for the sound of Ezra's little pop-gun, as if his personal signature piece is bound to feature in any despairing final plan. Although, come to think of it, perhaps Ezra isn't capable of having any kind of final plan at all, because his mind just plain hurts too much. The impulse could merely be to hide like a cat that's fatally wounded.
Everything batters about in Josiah's own head like insects trapped under a lampshade. Frantic, repetitive, leading nowhere good.
"Have you seen Ezra?" he asks the first person he passes but there's an apologetic shrug in response. As well as slight puzzlement. Now why on earth would a man who's just had a fit in the street be running around town? And why in God's name would his kinship have mislaid him at such a time?
Josiah heads towards the General Store.
That he plays such a particular role in all of this makes him feel wretched, yet he's hell bent on doing the right thing. He tries to corral his thoughts. It's really not so long since Ezra was with him in the church, bluffing and blustering. Josiah tries to remember how he seemed.
'No longer bound as we previously agreed.'
How casual he was, how typically Ezra. How goddamned well full of baloney.
Now the immediacy of fear has jolted his assumptions, Josiah accepts Ezra hadn't intended to absolve him from his promise at all, was just trying to put him off the scent. He probably knew as much at the time but wouldn't face up to it, preferred the status quo. That thought makes his teeth grit. How often has he counseled against denial and complacency, the dangers of not seeing what's under your own nose?
"Evenin'," he says, short, as he enters the store, grateful they're not closed and locked up already, relieved someone's standing behind the counter. The man's new in town, doesn't know Ezra or any of them well. "You haven't seen Mr. Standish pass here by any chance?"
"Must have his days jumbled up," the guy says in response. He's obliging, oblique, and yet painfully to the point in a way he probably doesn't even realize.
"Sorry?" Josiah's pulse thrums in his ears.
"Saw him headed to church. Only a while ago."
"Oh God," Josiah says on the turn, because it makes sense. If Ezra's really planning on breaking his promise—to him, to the good Lord—then perhaps he figures church will be the best place. He can cover as many angles as possible that way, ask for forgiveness even as he commits the sin.
When he gets outside Josiah looks up the street to see if any of the others are close enough to signal. He can't see them but he yells out anyway, his voice big enough to carry.
The doors of the church are closed when he gets there, as he'd left them. The interior is empty, the dimness impenetrable without the customary candles. It's a blow not to find Ezra sitting in there, drawn to the comforting darkness that Josiah understands is a help.
"Ezra!" he calls out anyway. "You in here?"
There's no answer, no sign of anyone in Josiah's room at the side.
Josiah puts a hand to his brow, confused. His expectations of a moment ago are dumbfounded. He'd half decided, once he found Ezra here—however he'd found him—he'd ring the bell, bring help and support.
The bell, which sits atop the little church tower, to call the faithful, gather the troops, make a cry for help.
"Ezra!" he calls again, and begins towards the door at the back of the church. It leads up the bell-tower, and it's the best seat in the house, as they all know.
The tower itself isn't big enough to need more than a rickety ladder that creaks and sways when you set foot on it. There are some rungs on it that you take care not to step down on too hard, or even miss out altogether. Josiah reminds himself every Sunday that needs to do something about that, and some of the others, Ezra in particular, complain sometimes after they've been up here on watch. Vin, who dearly loves a good vantage point, doesn't, but then he can't make it on to the platform at all right now.
It's cool up top.
Before he's even emerged through the opening, Josiah knows Ezra is there.
"Ezra," he says for the third time, voice shaky with relief. "What are you doing?"
He heaves himself on to the platform and rises gingerly to his feet. It's a small space, hardly room for more than two grown men. Josiah is overcome with relief, first of all, that nothing has happened. Ezra is intact. He's standing with his back to him, leaning on the low, fragile balustrade next to the bell as if unconcerned it might collapse under his weight. His hair, which seems longer than Josiah remembers, is blowing around his ears in the breeze. He doesn't seem to have a gun in his hand and just for a split second it all seems so normal and peaceful Josiah wonders why he ever thought he would.
It's about the perfect lookout up here. Ezra's face is turned towards the darkening sky, the far mountains and the east road, which splits off another under the trees, heading diagonally towards town. The low, rocky peaks in the background look forbidding in the stormy light, the dusty tracks hard to pick out. All manner of things come in on that road. The stage, the mail, strangers, loved ones, trouble. Good things and bad in equal measure. And of course it's the way out, too.
"We were worried." Josiah swallows down his propensity to scold. He has the feeling that he needs to proceed with complete caution. Things don't seem normal at all now. Ezra's wearing the clean pants Buck brought him, his gun belt and an untucked shirt. The holster hangs loose and unfastened over one shoulder. He's not steady on his feet. It's not the highest tower in the world, but a fall would be enough. Good God, given how Ezra's positioned himself, even turning around might be enough.
Only he really doesn't think it's Ezra's style to fling himself over. There are too many variables. Nevertheless, the man's come up here for something, whether to think or to act in violence they might never know, and it will take very little to unbalance him, propel him forward and over the wooden rail.
"Ezra, I'm right here," he says. "Why don't you step back, come down into the church?" He pauses. "You don't need to go back to Nathan's if you don't want to."
Ezra slumps one shoulder into the timber wall of the bell-tower. It's the one with the holster and the one that's always given him trouble. The move is slight, but enough to make the balustrade, which was never designed to be leaned against, bow dangerously. That there might now be an accident that should never have happened, fills Josiah with panic. His throat is tight with it.
Caution flies right out into the evening.
He snatches, latching on to a handful of shirt. His hand closes around the fabric but the hold isn't firm. The soft, good quality material is smooth as butter, slides right through his fist. Ezra jerks at the contact, his head swinging around. But God... thank God... he jerks sideways instead of forwards because Josiah doesn't think he'd have held on to him. Even so there's a moment when he thinks Ezra is about to plunge out of sight over the edge. More of him is out of the bell-tower than in, but somehow Ezra gets his own right hand on to the nearest wall, clutches hold of it, knuckles white. He saves himself, although his knees at once seem to turn to water, threaten to tip him back over.
Josiah catches Ezra around the waist, hears the breath punch out of him.
"There," he says, momentarily shutting his eyes. He holds on tight, overcome with vertigo.
"Josiah!" floats up from the street below. "That you?"
"You got him?" comes another voice.
He blinks open his eyes again, finds Ezra is looking right at him, which is a shock. His eyes are expressive and Josiah can read them easily. Ezra is pleading with him. The wide eyes are outright begging him, and Josiah is not absolved. The promise remains as it ever was. Ezra hasn't gone and put a bullet in his brain, he hasn't crashed to earth. He's upheld his side of the bargain, even if he didn't intend to.
"Nathan thinks he can help you." Josiah's voice is quiet, persuasive. "He thinks he can give you a chance. You don't have any chance right now, you know that, don't you?"
Ezra's mouth moves but no words come out. His head makes a listless motion. Josiah's eyes prick, hot and fierce. Vin has maintained all along that nothing good would ever come of Gabe Palmer's strike. He says the very moment he saw and heard the blow he knew f'sure they all were headed down the rapids, and it didn't much matter there was no paddle. Hell, there wasn't even a canoe...
As if from far away, Josiah hears the church door bang downstairs. The clomp of boots follows, more than one pair, rapidly across the floor. Then a voice, hailing him. It sounds like Chris. He's momentarily undecided whether to respond. They're coming to take Ezra where he doesn't want to go, and the defeat feels like an agony. Only he can prevent it.
Gravity pulls and they fold to the floor of the platform with a thump.
"It's all right," Josiah says feeling a surge of loyalty, although he's not even sure if Ezra's able to comprehend. "I promised you, didn't I?"
He remains where he is, awkwardly braced, both arms clutched around Ezra's chest.
Someone's coming up the ladder.
Josiah shifts one hand. He pats around to try and locate his gun.
They don't hear Josiah calling for them, but other people do.
The man at the General Store comes right out and up the street. He's yapping about the preacher and the church, waving his arms. Apparently excited about his first involvement with the peacekeepers of his new neighborhood. Nathan has lost sight of Vin by then, but Chris hears the shouting and hares out of the Hotel by the lumber. He's ahead as the two of them set off towards the church. When they get as far as the Grain Exchange, something makes Chris look up, come to a temporary halt.
"Josiah! That you?"
Nathan squints through the rapidly encroaching dark. "He got him?" he asks coming up on Chris's shoulder, and then finds himself shouting, "You got him?"
There's no reply but they're through the doors by then.
"Up the tower?" Chris growls in disgust.
"He better not have done anythin'," Nathan responds, a hand on Chris's back, urging him forward. "He just better not."
It seems entirely wrong to be mad, but Nathan knows it's just masking something else. Chris gets to the foot of the ladder and he's up it like a streak. Nathan lets him go, knows better than to get on at the same time. When Chris's boots disappear he steps carefully on the bottom rung.
"I think you should back off!" he hears Josiah say in a warning tone above. Nathan knows that tone. It's boiling with rage and turmoil, and Josiah's rage is not something any of them ever want to incite. He's not exactly sure why Josiah should be raging at them, but he does know the preacher's heartsick about all of this, and for reasons best known to himself isn't exactly sold on intervention.
When he gets up the ladder and on to the platform he finds Chris frozen in place. On his feet, hands half raised, one in front of the other.
Ezra's down again, and he don't look good. He don't look good at all. Even worse that fool preacher seems to think he's doing him a favor by pointing his damned pistol at them.
Nathan doesn't mask his own anger now. He gestures with some astringency at the pointing gun.
"You lost your mind?"
He and Josiah have always been able to be honest with one another and don't tend to niceties if they don't think they need them. Nathan just wishes they'd found time to be honest over this whole business sooner than now, when all these fears and emotions have gotten so chaotic.
"I don't know about this." Josiah's voice isn't very steady, although the gun is.
"Well I do," Nathan says flatly, and sees Chris give a half glance back over his shoulder. "What I know is you ain't helping. This ain't what Ezra needs. I'm lookin' right at him and believe me, this ain't what he needs. He's not doin' well, you understand me? From what I can see he's likely to die right there in your arms, Josiah. Or even more likely on the table. That what you want? Because chances are that's what'll happen, ain't I said that often enough? But I can tell you... if you don't let him go—now—he'll die down there on that cold floor, and you'll never know if I could've saved him. You'll never know."
Josiah's voice is not as angry as before but it's not exactly defeated, either.
"We had a bargain. I promised him I'd stand against you if it came to it." He lifts up the arm holding the gun to show them it's still firmly handled.
"What in Hell did you agree to?" Nathan demands, losing patience. The very idea that his friend, the trusted Josiah, would turn a gun on him in order to keep him away from Ezra is shocking. He feels a wave of betrayal, wonders how Josiah must see him, if he appears to be some kind of madman on the loose that must be stopped. And he wonders how Ezra persuaded him in the first place. What his side of the bargain entailed.
"Maybe he wants to die," Chris says. He's still cautious about the gun, too, although he's dropped his hands. "But he don't want you to shoot us. Might be a fool and about out of his mind right now, but he don't want that. And you don't want that either. Looks to me like you've kept your promise and that's all Ezra knows. You kept it, Josiah. Now let Nathan do his job."
It's not a job, thinks Nathan in sudden despair. It's a doomed experiment, a piece of self-indulgent arrogance.
But he's going to do it. He knows that, like he's always known it, right from the moment he opened that box of delights. Even more reason now, for he's certain Ezra has no other chance.
"Let's get him down."
"Down where?" Chris sounds confused.
"Back of Josiah's. There's a table. Let's get him on the table."
Nathan looks straight at Josiah, almost daring him. Now he's said those words—on the table—he feels like the whole thing is being put in motion. It's what surgeons want to do, real surgeons working in the modern world. They don't want to be carrying out this work on battlefields, or out in the desert. They want their patients in clean, light rooms, on well scrubbed tables. They want ether and the safest means to administer it, carbolic acid, the best surgical implements they can lay their hands on, the latest information. They want strong-stomached assistance, plentiful clean gauze to pack wounds, spools of the toughest, supplest thread money can buy, pristine cloth to stem bleeding, comfortable beds for their patients to recover in. And then, just as important, they want devoted family close by to nurse and stand vigil.
Nathan is lucky. He has access to all those things as well as his healer's skill, he's been collecting them just for this day, and he can use them, to make sure, as far as he can, that Ezra—his friend—is helped.
"You gonna put that thing down now?"
Josiah ignores him, looks up at Chris, his hold tightening.
There'd been some kind of gentle in Chris's tone before, but now it seems to have gone and he's accusatory. "You even know if he's still breathing?"
That seems to make an impression. As if pulling himself out of a spell, Josiah gets one hand to the floor, the one holding the gun. There's a dull clunk from the metal barrel on the wood. "Can't tell," he says uncertainly, his grip on the stock loosening.
"Ah hell." Nathan pushes past Chris, kicks the gun out of Josiah's unresisting hand with a huff before he crouches down. It hits the wall and makes all of them flinch.
"What's goin' on?" they hear Buck bawling from down below.
Chris swivels carefully. He lowers to one knee. "Buck? We're bringing him down... the boys there?
"All of us," Buck says back. And then, again, louder, "What the fuck's goin' on?"
Nathan doesn't hear what Chris says in response. A pulse, erratic and feeble, is bumping his fingers. It's a sign of life, but right now that's far from enough. He thinks there's more damage being done with every passing minute, that Ezra might not even survive getting to the table. Never mind the aggressive effect of ether on the lungs once he's there. He cocks a look at Josiah, head bent low, arms locked in a protective hold. Seems like a good plan to let the preacher keep that hold for now. Might do both of them some good.
"Try and keep'm still," he says, touching Josiah's arm, getting his attention. There's really no time to worry about what's come between them, how twisted up Josiah's feeling, about how any of them are feeling, himself included. "And let's get his irons off him, it'll help." He changes his tone, sharp to soft, the way he does when talking to patients and onlookers, needing different reactions from each. "You're all right, Ezra. We got you."
Between them Nathan and Josiah unbuckle the gun-belt, one of the very few pieces of gear which is no more fancy than anyone else's. Josiah slides it off, tosses it to Chris. Then the conversion from the shoulder holster. Ezra tenses at being man-handled, growling in protest, his movements leaden and uncoordinated. They find the derringer already disengaged from the rig, but tucked into his waistband. They don't acknowledge there's any significance in that, although Nathan figures it fits into all this somehow. Either Ezra was just about to use it or he'd decided not to. But anyhow, he can't expend any energy on it right now. Time enough to take Ezra to task over whatever he thought he was doing when he hasn't got some ruptured vessel flooding his brain, threatening to sink him without trace.
"Let's go," he says, a finger on the dulled throb of lifeblood, an eye on the twitching lashes, the signs of a growing awareness. Consciousness is coming and going and he's not sure what's preferable. Etherization's easier, safer, on patients who begin awake, all their faculties intact. At the same time, you don't get no resistance from a man who's insensible to begin with.
They have to slide him down the ladder by degrees, three up top holding steady, the others taking the weight at the bottom. Nathan doesn't need to tell them not to jostle too much. They're used to handling Ezra by now, and he's used to hating it. Which Nathan knows is part of the problem.
"Here?" Buck says, incredulous, when Ezra's down safe and Nathan tells them what he wants. "In the church?"
"Ain't no sense carrying him further than we have to, and it's good and private in Josiah's room. Now don't you look at me like that, Buck, I ain't proposin' desecratin' the altar."
Buck's voice drops. "Just tell us what to do."
It's dark in the church now. They've laid Ezra on the floor, head on Buck's coat, and Nathan keeps checking for heartbeat and respiration. He looks up at his friends. Their faces are pale circles, all eyes fixed on him. There's a mix of trust, dismay and uncertainty in the expressions and Nathan can hardly blame them. He'd certainly not planned to do this at night time, without being ready, with one hand still weak, but there's nothing else for it now. He has to think quick, what's best for Ezra, the best way each one of them can help.
They listen to every word in silence, ready to move.
Nathan's instructions come out as the thoughts pop into his head. How he reckons Vin isn't going to be running anywhere that's for sure, but he has good steady hands, ain't likely to lose his supper. He'll need to get washed up. Buck has to be busy, ain't the moment to be pacin' around getting over-excited, and Josiah knows this place and where everything is. The two of them can begin by doing some heavy lifting work, get things cleared, cleaned up and ready, fast as they can. He'll need the table, a bench and the cot. Everything else can go. J.D. and Chris should come with him now, help carry all the material and equipment he needs. The kid'll make a good gopher, and Chris... well he just has do what he always does and keep a lid on things. For all their sakes.
It's Chris who asks, as soon as the first flood of instructions has slowed, and Nathan's momentarily unbalanced by the question. He curls his fingers against his thigh, feels the pull of the wound for the first time in hours. The hand isn't as strong as it should be, he knows that.
"I can work," he says shortly, and then takes a breath, ordering his thoughts once again. Given this whole mess over again he'd have put them through their paces well before this moment, but they'll listen to him, even those who ain't easy with this. Probably the first bunch of white men who've ever really listened to him. "Bright light, as much as we can rig up, stove burnin' hot, boilin' water comin'. Vin to hold the dishes, give me the tools... someone makin' sure Ezra don't wake up for any of this. Chris? Josiah?"
"I will." Josiah doesn't hesitate. Nathan exchanges the briefest of looks with him. As before up on the bell-tower, the preacher sees his role as protector. There's something of a warning in his face—maybe he needs to make up for having allowed this to happen to Ezra at all. Nathan tries to show he understands, knows he's on notice. He just hopes Josiah believes he'll do his best and isn't expecting a miracle.
"I'll show you how. Gonna need strong stomachs 'cause it won't be pretty."
Nathan's edgy as he, Chris and J.D. take off over the street to his rooms. Not about the process, for that's on the page, in his head. No, more about everything else. Town might seem to be blissfully unaware, but Nathan's not entirely convinced that some wave of crosswise sentiment won't yet turn some of his friends against him, cause them to clap him in jail this side of the operation, or the other. Can't hide the fact he's unqualified after all, owns no license to practise. Heck, even if he did, half the medical world thinks it's akin to criminal madness to operate on the brain.
Ain't no darkie doctors, and there never will be.
He wonders if maybe his daddy would agree and feels a sudden choke-hold of panic. He's not supposed to be here, doing this, telling them all what to do, cutting into a white man. Someone is bound to stop him. There's a body of opinion, even now, in town and beyond, that would hang him for even daring to contemplate what he's about to do.
"However it goes..." Chris says as they get into the clinic room and he stops Nathan's further progress for a second with a hand on his arm. It's a promise, rich in solidarity, and Nathan's profoundly grateful for it, even though he don't say so.
"Big safety lamp." He clears his throat, indicates where he has everything stowed. "Got a hook on it. I'll carry the jar. Need the box, and the book, my bag... and all that."
'That' is a stacked pile of cloth, sheets, gauze, towels and bandaging. The stack is neat, starchy clean, covered in muslin. Another trip will be needed, but he's had it all laid out in one place for some weeks now, away from his day to day paraphernalia.
Back at the church Vin, uncomfortably down on the floor, hasn't moved from Ezra's side. Josiah's lit candles, for light and hope, although Nathan thinks the place looks like a chapel of rest. He worries about the flammability of the ether.
"Keeps lookin' at me like I got horns," Vin reports, dry as a bone. "Seems kind of agitated. I told him not to worry."
"All right." Nathan's just glad right now Ezra hasn't had another fit, although if he's comin' round proper it could be he knows exactly what's about to happen and that sure ain't gonna help any.
"He won't like the vapor," he says absently to Josiah, who he notices has taken off his coat, as well as the dangling cross around his neck. He sends Chris and J.D. back over the street for what they're missing and then goes to check on the room. By the time they've returned, Ezra has been moved on to Josiah's cot. He's been divested of clothing, is wrapped in a blanket. Somehow he looks comfortable and safe there in the corner, slightly curled into himself.
The big table is scrubbed clean under the safety lamp, waiting, and just for this few moments they gather around it. Josiah looks like he thinks he ought to say a prayer, to bless them, or maybe firmly petition for divine assistance, but there's hardly time to draw breath.
"No naked flames in here," Nathan warns them, a last instruction. He glances at the safety lamp on its hook, hoping it lives up to its name and function. "Lessen you want to set fire to the church. And we need air." He rubs his hands together, shakes them to keep the circulation going, then looks to the cot, to Ezra's restlessness. He nods.
"Reckon you never figured on donatin' your ass to science, pard," Vin says, gritting his teeth as they take Ezra's weight between them again.
"Leastways not without a good fee," Buck adds, giving Ezra's cool bare shoulder a pat as they lay him down. The table is flat and hard, covered in a sheet, cold as a mortuary slab
Ezra's right knee at once bends in an attempt to get purchase, his heel banging the table top, snagging the sheet. His arms flail and he seems more alert than he's been since they found him up the tower, stronger. Nathan can feel the fear radiating out of him like a fever, but he has to ignore it.
He swallows as he looks around the room, through the shadows at the edges, then to the cocoon of almost dazzling lamplight in the center. The grain of the bench to the side is stained with carbolic, and the chemical smell intoxicates the atmosphere. On the table the patient's skin is paler than the sheet that now covers him. His hair's been wetted down and there's a gleaming razor knife readied in a basin. Nathan's wearing a long bib apron, just like the butcher's, and his shirtsleeves are rolled up to his biceps. His face is already sheened in sweat, he can feel it. Freiber's surgical instruments case is open at his elbow, the implements gleaming against the velvet. The fat medical textbook is open too, propped against a stack of old newsprint. More has been laid on the floor, as well as a tarpaulin.
They can draw their guns fast as they like, Nathan thinks. Shoot the spots off a bug from across the street. Face up to any number of crazy Colonel Andersons' with their weapons and their armies. Won't help them in here. In here they've got to be real heroes.
"Ezra don't want this, I know that." His eyes burn. "Even though it's to try and save his fool life. And that's what this is—y'all need to understand what we're doin' here and what the result will be."
"We know the odds are lousy," Chris says, his voice impatient as if he doesn't want to hear this speech anymore. He moves away from the table and leans in the doorway, staring into the church.
"No, I mean... he survives, it'd be foolish ta think he'll be all right."
Nathan's trying to sound controlled, but he can't keep the passion out of his voice. The remark is directed at Buck and J.D., with all their stupid, touching trust and optimism. Buck's face is a mask of unwilling acceptance. He swallows and nods. J.D. just shrinks back a little, not even wanting to ask the question that springs at once to his lips.
"I'll be goin' through the skull, cuttin..." Nathan stops, disbelieving of his own words for a second but then goes on. "... into his brain, right here." He touches down on the sopping hair, the covered scar. Gently, because he knows it's sensitive. He could use the medical words, all quite natural like Freiber did for him, respecting his knowledge. Entirely objective, professional, and detached from the patient. But he doesn't, because his friends need him to be Nathan. As he carries on he's setting up the metal jar of ether, heavy as a barrel, the funnel, mask and sponge. "Guessin' he's had a bleed in there. Need to find it, find what's been painin' him, cut it out, tie it off. See what the damage is. Something will get taken away, not even Freiber can tell me what that might be. Seems it's as much guesswork as fact far as I can tell, even if you know what ya lookin' at in the first place. So, if he even damn well keeps breathing through this, if he doesn't spring a leak I can't plug, if he ever damn well wakes up again... well. Man don't go about bein' same as before after somethin' like this."
Larabee speaks. The impatience has trickled away and he sounds resigned, hard. "If he dies we'll deal with it, if he doesn't we'll damn well deal with it." He doesn't look at the group, just goes on staring into the church.
Nathan dismisses the words with a sharp movement of his hand. He so much needs them to understand. The necessary steel enters his voice. "Long as you ain't gonna turn around later and say we should've gone for a proper surgeon."
Vin speaking makes Chris turn his head towards them again. "You know he ain't gonna forgive any one of us for this." Tanner has a light hold on Ezra's restless ankle.
"I can live with that," Larabee says, pushing away from the door jamb. "Long as he's around to tell me so."
Behind him in the church, the light from Josiah's candles flickers and bends.
And then Vin's rocked off his feet by a sudden kick.
"Whoah!" he says, arm coming up for protection. At the same moment there's a scuffling at the head of the table which makes Chris spin right around.
A voice bursts out of nowhere, startlingly unexpected.
It's Ezra. And he sounds as if he's just broken the surface. As if he's half drowned, had a frantic swim to reach them from the depths. He takes a great, whooping breath, pulls his head from the table so hard the sinews cord on his neck.
"Everything's fine," Josiah says, almost apologetic like he knows that's a stretch.
"Nathan?" Ezra says, head turning sharply, trying to find him. "Don't do this... don't do this..." His tone gets Chris right in the chest.
From the searing look that briefly crosses Nathan's face before he gets it under control, Chris figures he's had fuckin' nightmares about this exact scenario—Ezra awake, thrashing and panic-stricken, making a last, hopeless stand against friends who've utterly betrayed him.
"Steady," the healer intones, emotionless, not stopping what he's doing. "Keep him still, gotta keep him still. Josiah..." He has to raise his voice sharply to get Josiah's horrified attention off Ezra. "Need you. Now!"
"Here," Buck says. He pushes forward from the shadows, slides in to lock an arm around Ezra's chest from behind, letting Josiah move aside. "No you don't. I'm so damned sorry, hoss, but no you fuckin' don't."
J.D. weaves to avoid being hit in the jaw by another strong kick as he moves to try and help Vin pin Ezra back to the table. Ezra's heel slams the wood again.
"His head," Nathan reminds them, loud enough to command attention amidst the disturbance.
So that's how Chris finds himself there, sweating under the lamplight. Buck's big hand is already pressing down on Ezra's forehead so hard it must hurt both of them. Chris tries to suck in some air but nothing seems to get in. He clamps a robust hold on the sides of Ezra's skull. Although it goes right against intuition, Chris somehow forces him still. He can feel Ezra's jaw and throat working against him, muscles in the arm under his elbow knotted with effort. Struggling for the breath to help himself, Ezra's chest heaves and drops, air tearing in and out. Vin is growling with the strain as he holds on. Chris can hear Nathan talking fast to Josiah behind him somewhere.
"Nothin' for it," he says, holding the wild eyes. They crackle back at him with manic energy. "We gotta go for this."
"Chris," Ezra grinds out. His voice... it's almost as if he thinks, even now, he can convince Chris to change his mind given half a chance. "Chris," he repeats, pushing the name out from low in his belly. "I don't... please."
"Nothin' to lose," Chris says, bending closer, stroking both cheekbones with his thumbs. "I know you're scared, I know it. But from where you are right now, you got nothin' to lose, hear me? It's for the best."
Ezra's eyes sizzle at him so he can hardly stand it.
You bastard, they're saying. You don't understand, you bastard, you complete son of a bitch.
Then they snap away. He's seen the mask coming. The over-breathing quickens and Chris hears Buck's curse as Ezra strains against them again, fights to get his head loose.
"Ezra," Chris snarls, clamping his hands tighter. "Keep fuckin' still. Look at me. Hey! Stop doin' this... stop it." He'd always figured on ending up the villain of the piece somehow, or the hero, depending on where you're standing. Ezra's eyes veer back to his, wide.
As the mask descends, the first noxious fumes hit. Chris keeps his hands locked, meets Ezra's stare of rigid, helpless frustration. He feels the wetness of tears slide between his fingers, the steady vibration of the growl, one note, in the back of Ezra's throat. That growl might be all Ezra has left now, and Chris admires the heck out of him for it. They'd wanted him quiet as a lamb, just so it'd be easier on them, and he's almost fuckin' glad Ezra's fought them so hard.
Ether's nasty crap. Irritates the bronchials, the lining of the lungs, and makes Ezra start coughing and retching like he's being poisoned.
"Ease up on him, fellers," J.D. says, sounding frightened.
For a while Ezra tries to fight everything at once but it's a whole new battlefront, trying not to breathe. So much for the gentle glide into a happy sleep that Chris has heard about. To be fair, Nathan's never characterized the vapor like that himself, but Chris knows he read something in a magazine once that made it sound easy, almost pleasant. He and Buck saw chloroform in the field hospitals and he remembers the cloying smell, the rolling up of eyes. He doesn't remember it being this much of a battle.
It takes longer to work than Chris expected or any of them would have liked. The growl slowly dies away to nothing, the eyes drift and lose their focus. After a stretched minute or three he's able to relax his hands away more, is aware that the resistance is weighted now, Ezra's limbs becoming progressively more unresponsive to his own instincts and desires. The eyes open and close, persistent. Stubborn some might say. Buck's not pressing down so hard anymore. Every so often he just pets Ezra's forehead, his large hand gentle. The heavy, unnatural breathing is the loudest sound in the room, and they watch Ezra's face turn color as if he's been drinking liquor in a hot saloon.
Nathan eventually, slowly, draws the mask away.
There's an ominous calm in the room now Ezra's quieter. He hasn't opened his eyes again.
Chris sees that Nathan's too busy to talk to the rest of them. Too focused.
"Buck," he says in a low tone, jerks his head at J.D. The kid still has his body braced over Ezra's legs, has to be nudged hard to let go.
"We won't be goin' far." Buck draws a trembling hand over his face as he stands up straight. "Ain't runnin off. Jus' gonna sit right out here." He indicates the space beyond the door vaguely.
Nathan doesn't respond, but Vin does.
"Might need you," he says, and Chris thinks that's about right. Tanner may have those rock steady hands, just like Nathan said, but the healer seems to have forgotten Vin's leg could give way at any moment. About the last thing in the world Chris needs right now is to have to see any of the surgery taking place. He knows it'll be bloody and brutal, and having had Ezra look right into him just now, so crushed and bitter, he doesn't think he could stand watching him cut open. If Vin needs him though, he'll step in. The thought makes his heart begin to race again.
Ezra's body is a zig zag on the rucked up sheet. Josiah's straightening him out like he's already dead.
Chris takes a last look at Nathan before he follows the other two out. It's the man he knows setting out the tools on a white cloth—the trephine, the chisel, the neat little mallet—and yet in some ways Chris doesn't recognize him at all. Here they are in some windblown mess of a town in the back of beyond, but this is the modern era, and almost unbelievably Nathan Jackson's a part of it. He has a foot in the old world, all that purging, and pukin' and blistering; and a foot ready to enter the new. Time now to use science, to take that step.
Ezra's gone, right down. He's limp, head lolled obligingly to one side, skin violently flushed from the gas.
"Git that overall on."
Nathan indicates to Vin with his elbow, and takes up the razor knife.
Chris turns away from it sharply, his stomach unsettled. He needs to get out of here. As he follows Buck and J.D. from the room he pulls the door up but doesn't close it.
When he's in the church proper, Buck makes for the nearest pew bench and lowers himself on to it by degrees as if his legs might be about to shake him to the floor. He mutters something that don't sound too polite, and leans his elbows to his knees, rests his head in his hands. J.D. tosses a glance at him and then begins to pace. Chris doesn't think he can handle that for too long.
"J.D.?" he says, and the kid looks at him, hopeful. "Go take a walk round town, check the jail. If none of us are around someone's bound to be lookin' for trouble."
"All right," J.D. says. He finds his hat, fusses with it, checks his gun belt.
"And have somethin' to eat," Buck says indistinctly from his bent position.
When J.D.'s slipped out the door of the church, pushed it closed behind him with a clunk, Chris goes to sit by Buck. He doesn't say anything for a while, intent on the gradual calming of his still racing heart. Even though he doesn't actually want to, he can't help but listen out for what's happening next door. There's a faint 'tink' of metal against porcelain once or twice but no sound of voices.
"Hey." He kicks a boot.
Buck shifts his feet, raises his head from his hands and Chris meets his eyes, is glad to see them.
"You did good in there."
"It was hell," Buck responds, sounding dog-tired. "What we did, it was... it was hell."
"Reckon it was." Chris feels sick to the stomach. Even if Ezra survives, how the hell will they make it up to him after that? They'd forced him, held him down and forced him, allowed the violation. You can't do that to a man, to a friend, you just can't, whatever the reason.
Buck breathes deeply, getting himself under control. Chris can imagine how much he wants a beer, or something better.
"Ain't a thing we can do now," Buck says but he doesn't sound as if he's resigned to it, more like he's trying to talk himself into something.
Chris agrees, half-hearted. He sees Buck's expression change a little, as if there's something else on his mind too.
"Just say it, Buck," he says. "Think you and I are about done with secrets."
A wry half-smile touches Buck's face in spite of himself. "Old dog," he says.
"Just wondered. What you found up that tower."
Chris is almost grateful for a reason to go back over it.
"Josiah went up, found Ezra."
"Well heck. Figured as much, but doin' what?"
"Didn't think to ask, Josiah had a fuckin' gun pointed at me."
Buck's face twists in confusion. "A gun?"
"Well, you know the preacher told us not to touch him. And there was something... between him and Ezra I reckon. Some understanding." He revises his words, keeps his voice low. "A deal."
"Unholy pact..." Buck shakes his head as if he's remembering something. "So you reckon Josiah stopped him? Stopped Ezra from, you know, doin' something crazy?"
"Maybe he did." Chris can't decide now he thinks about it. "Maybe Ezra stopped himself. Hell, maybe those guns were just for self defense and he never wanted to blow his brains out in the first place, I don't know. Point is, now he's on the table in there and he sure as hell didn't want to be. Josiah was only tryin' to help him."
"So's Nathan. So were we all."
"Yeah," Chris says, the taste bitter. "So were we all."
J.D. leaves the church almost at a run. Once he'd gotten over being expelled from the 'grown ups' conversation, he couldn't get away fast enough.
He finds himself walking up the main street at a fast pace, breathing hard. The cool, fresh air is good, and the sight of lights in buildings and on the street levels him. It draws him back to normality and he likes that. Reminds him how much else there is to think about. Town smells of dust and smoke and dung, like it always does. He breathes it in with gratitude. Even the idea of the chemical smell back there in Josiah's room makes his throat tight.
"Sheriff Dunne," someone says, tipping their hat.
J.D. walks on. Past the First National Bank, past the corner by the Post Office, past Watson's and the Potters' store.
"What in the hell's goin' on round here?" Gabe Palmer's whiney voice hails him as he opens the door of the darkened jail house and walks inside. The light from the street fire right outside is just enough to enable him to find the matches. In the growing lamplight he glances across at the cells. Gabe's sitting on his cot and Abner's lying down.
"Nothin' you need worry about," he says. "You'll get your supper."
"You lawmen been hoppin' round all day like your tails are on fire." Gabe sounds vaguely satisfied about that.
"Maybe." J.D. has learned to be non-committal. He glances again at Gabe, feels a visceral dislike wind through him. "I'll be takin' a run through town. Then I'll be back."
"You know when we're goin' yet?" Gabe asks but J.D. doesn't answer. The prisoner makes a noise of disgust. "Fuckin' chicken-shit lawmen."
Across the street the saloon is busy but peaceful. Inez looks as if she'd like to ask him some questions but she has customers to serve and J.D. deliberately doesn't hang around. He plans to walk right up to the stage company office, loop round the back of the hotel and come up the side of Digger Dave's for a change. Buck has taught him never to get set in his ways when walking patrol around town.
There's a light burning in the Clarion office and he hurries to increase his pace going past. He understands Chris's desire to keep what Nathan's doing 'in house'. J.D. has a suspicion Mrs. Travis might get all complicated and moral on him. His head truly doesn't think they've done anything wrong—but he can't explain the crawling sensation he keeps getting in his belly. Like hunger, only more empty.
In truth, the only person he really would like to run into right now is Casey Wells. Casey don't know very much at all about what's been going on—she hasn't been in town for a few days, been too busy on the farm. So she don't even know they got the Palmers unless some other neighbor told her. She don't know what happened with Ezra today either.
Casey would smile at him, whatever. She might make him laugh, might make him mad, it wouldn't really matter which. He just knows he'd badly like her company, even for a few minutes.
Squaring his shoulders, and passing a brief hand over the butt of his gun, he swings past the Ritz. Then he's at Butterfields, rounding the corner of the road leading north out of town. There's a couple of fellers smoking out back of the cigar shop and they nod at him. He breathes in the tobacco smell as he goes by. Digger Dave's is quiet, and then he's back at the restaurant. His stomach growls at the smells coming from inside, but, despite what Buck said, he can't imagine actually being able to eat.
Actually, he's not sure how much money he has in his pocket anyhow.
Instinctively J.D. reaches into his jacket and his hand closes around a crinkle of paper.
"Damn," he says out loud.
An older lady, friend of Miss Nettie's, shakes her head at him as she passes within earshot along the boardwalk.
Drawing the paper out of his pocket, J.D. stares at it in disquiet.
Ezra's letter to his ma.
He really doesn't want to be carrying it around, being responsible for something so personal. It might get lost. And it will just sit there wanting to be read, or posted, which is not his job or anybody else's except Ezra.
Nevertheless, the temptation to rip it open is undeniably strong. Last words, perhaps, from a son to a mother. The thought of that makes his breathing hitch for a second.
"Damn that," he says defiantly, but there's nobody to hear this time. He jumps off the boardwalk, jogs across the street to the saloon. Once again Inez looks up, a question on her face. He just shakes his head at her, feeling bad that she's worried, and goes straight to the stairs, takes them in twos.
Ezra's room is open. It isn't as tidy as it was last time he saw it. The bed is rumpled, the closet door ajar. He keeps the room door open to get the gaslight from the passage, crosses quickly to the bureau under the mirror. As he lays the letter down against the mirror, his eyes light on the other objects on the top of the bureau. Ezra's ivory handled hairbrush, and a few scraps of paper. One's an invoice from Mrs. Potter's store. And then there's a rectangle of notepaper.
It's good quality, thick paper with a beveled edge, folded in a sharp crease but unsealed. J.D. can see at once that written on it is one word in violet colored ink: 'Chris', underlined with an unsteady flourish. It can be hard to tell what Ezra's real handwriting is like since he's so good at copying other people's—forgery some might say if they weren't feeling generous. There's an unfamiliar tentative quality about the script, but it's definitely the ink he uses.
For a second, J.D. just stares at it, his hand still attached to the St. Louis letter. Then slowly he withdraws the hand from the envelope, picks up the note.
"Oh, Ezra," he says on the turn.
All he can think as he leaves the room and patters down the stairs, the paper almost burning his fingers, is that it isn't addressed all formal-like to 'Mr. Larabee' for once, and the significance of that makes his heart squeeze.
"J.D.?" Inez says, arresting his progress as he reaches the corner of the bar. "Won't you have something to eat?"
"I'm sorry, Inez, that's right nice of you." He tips his hat automatically. "But I can't right now."
"All right," she says, sadly. "I understand."
J.D. peers in through the jailhouse window as he goes past. There seems too be a moody quiet in there. Gabe and Abner are still waiting for their supper but they haven't taken to kicking the slop-bucket or hollering yet. All around him town seems very calm. But by the time he's gotten back down the street to the church, his heart is crashing against his ribs as if there's a fire.
As he comes in the door he sees Buck and Chris have moved from the pew benches, are on their feet. Their posture is watchful, nervous. The light from Josiah's room is splashed across the floor as the door is wide open now. J.D. can hear some sounds coming from in there but he tries to close his ears against it.
He does hear that. Buck has seen his face. Chris too. They probably think they need to come back him up in some situation he can't handle.
"I found this!" he says, holding the note out, hand unsteady. "In Ezra's room. It's for you, Chris.
Chris stares at it for a second.
"Pickin' up more stray letters, J.D?" he says in a low, toneless voice. "What's goin' on with you?"
"I was leaving him the one for his ma." J.D. feels flustered and not a little cross at the suggestion of rebuke. "Jus' so's he'd find it safe when he... when he gets back. And this was in his room."
It seems like an age before Chris actually reaches out and takes the note. He stares at it, reading his name, then opens the page with a sharp flick. J.D. watches his face, not even sure what he expects to see there—sorrow maybe, or shock. Even anger. As Chris's eyes rove down the sheet, quickly, eyes squinted in the poor light, J.D. is nonplussed to see none of those things.
There's suddenly a slight, wry quirk to his lips.
"It says 'Dear Chris'."
J.D. is confused by the rueful tone.
"And?" Buck's clearly confused too.
Chris looks up at them. "That's all it says. 'Dear Chris.' No date, no sorry, no 'by the time you read this'. No nothin'."
"Oh," J.D. says, not sure what to think. He doesn't quite know if he's disappointed or relieved.
Chris looks at the blank letter again. He shakes his head, snorts. "Either he couldn't finish it, or he just didn't damn well want to." There's an odd gleam in his eye. He blinks and it's gone in a moment. "Ezra never does what you'd expect. He's leavin' us guessin' again." He folds the piece of notepaper and tucks it in the top pocket of his shirt.
"I thought-" J.D. begins, but then stops. Although he'd be glad not to be either mad or sad about Ezra wanting to die, J.D. still doesn't know what he thinks.
"Who knows what was in his head," Chris says, and J.D. has the strange thought that Nathan's poking around in there right now, this very minute, and even he won't know.
Because he doesn't want to sit and doesn't want to stand still, J.D. finds himself moving nearer the door to Josiah's room again. He really doesn't want to see inside, and yet somehow he does.
"I wouldn't," Buck advises him, quiet. His hand is a fist and he rubs the side of his index finger under his bottom lip. "Someone in there jus' lost their lunch."
Ezra's busy dreaming.
He's an open book and his brain, soft as sponge, is outside its cover. And that's all he is—a heap of shredded nervous tissue, exposed and sensitive to everything. After a period of painful noise and disturbance, there's a silence heavier than any he's ever been in. Which means they've gone. Chris, Nathan, everybody. They've taken whatever it was they wanted, taken it by force and crept away in shame, leaving the remains behind.
Ezra feels bruised. There are marks all over him, deep as the bone. As if he's been in a fight he didn't want and couldn't win, a fight he lost badly. There's shame in that, and a harsh, white-hot anger.
His mother's there, in faintly rustling black silk. She walks round and round the table wringing her hands. Her face is hidden from him but he feels her tears. Ezra understands why she's upset, and he feels guilty for it, the kind of guilt he'll never be able to make up to her, causing a grief in his own heart he couldn't ever palliate.
"You have to stay sharp, darlin'. Like I always had to."
If he could speak he'd tell her, for maybe the first time in his life, to just be quiet. For what he wants, what he really, really wants is for her stop. To stop and draw near, let him feel the warmth of her hand, the blood under her skin.
Sometimes he's aware of the table. He's no longer numb or detached that's for sure, the way he's been for weeks—the exact, polar opposite in fact. There are so many thoughts and emotions it's as if he's drowning in them. And even though he can't locate his mouth he's aware there's a vile taste in it. It's rancid, rotten, like he's all turned inside out, beginning to decompose. He's drained of life and his empty head hurts so badly.
His mother makes way for voices.
"He's already warm," one says. The timbre of it scares him although he can't identify why. "Did my best, but he's already too warm."
Which is depressing, because he's chilled as a day-old cadaver.
His heart continues to beat, turning over and over in his chest.
Ezra wants it to stop.
At around three in the morning, the quietest time, three of them are sitting out on the church steps. Buck, Chris and J.D., coats drawn close. The main door of the church is slightly ajar, just enough so they can hear if Josiah calls them.
It's the preacher who's been the conduit between Nathan and the outside world. He's come out of the room a few times to just say things are going along all right so far, to stretch his legs, take a drink of water or a slug of hot coffee and clear his head. The scent of ether and blood has come out with him.
"Vin all right?" Chris has asked each time, in case he's needed.
"Coping," Josiah has responded.
They told him about the letter to Chris that wasn't a letter and he'd looked bemused for a moment or two and then shrugged.
"I'll take that as a good sign," he'd decided, which Buck had found something of a comfort.
Then he comes out for the last time. They've been sitting in the chilly night air talking in low voices about the Palmers, and Eagle Bend, about food, wanting a beer, and how long it's been since Nathan began. They hear the tread of boots on the floor inside the church and Buck's the first to his feet. His hands are cold as ice and his joints are stiff.
Inside, Josiah is standing in the middle of the church looking at the floor as if he hardly knows what to do with himself. He raises his head as he hears them come in.
"Nathan sewed him up," he says. "Put him back together."
Buck feels an unpleasant sensation at the back of his neck. He's been trying hard not to imagine what Nathan has had to do. The sewing up would happen however the surgery has gone, whether Ezra's survived it or not.
"I need some air," Josiah goes on, almost as if they're not there. "And to clean up." He has a bucket of soiled cloth and utensils in his hand which Buck doesn't want to examine too closely. The preacher's face is pinched. He looks grizzled and heartsore.
"How did it...?" Buck begins, even though he seems a stupid question.
"Didn't lose him on the table," Josiah says. "I don't know how we didn't, but we didn't. So that's one good thing, what Nathan was most afraid of. Although now..."
Now there's the waking up. There's all that blood lost, a shocking amount, the ever-hovering, creeping infection to keep away. Now there's seeing what's left.
Josiah speaks to J.D. without really making eye contact. "Could use some company."
That's what makes Buck realize he doesn't want the kid seeing Ezra. Not just yet.
"You go, kid," he says, even though he's aware they keep kicking him out and he's going to resist them in the end.
"Nathan?" Chris is already saying at the open door. "Can we-?"
"Sure," comes a weary voice from within.
Buck makes sure J.D. and Josiah are on their way out, and then gathers himself and follows Chris inside the room.
As they expected, the floor of Josiah's room is awash. Enough to turn a hardened man faint. The safety lamp is still hanging over the table but it's been turned low. There's another lamp alight, burning quietly next to Josiah's cot. The table is more or less clear, and Vin's leaning on it in some discomfort. His overalls are balled up and held in his hands. Nathan's got his back to them, is scrubbing his fingernails with a brush by the sound of it.
The tarpaulin's been half rolled up, the blood-soaked sheet, the soggy newsprint and Nathan's apron along with it.
Chris has gone straight to the cot and is standing there, chewing the inside of his cheek. Coming up to stand at his shoulder Buck blows out a long, steadying breath. The smell in here of acid and copper and chemicals makes him want to vomit.
He doesn't think he's ever seen anyone look so sick who wasn't already a corpse. And God knows he saw enough gut-churning sights during the war. It looks to him as if Ezra has next to no hair left on his head, although most of what he can see is swathed in thick bandaging anyhow. The layers are already stained on one side, reek of linseed and carbolic. Ezra's face looks hollowed out, bled dry, shockingly empty. He doesn't move, seems to be dead.
"It's all done," Vin says mechanically.
Buck looks at Chris as if he thinks he can interpret.
"I'll sit with him," Nathan says, turning around with a towel. He's sounding resolute despite the exhaustion etched on his face, wipes his hands dry.
"Looks like you could use a break," Buck offers, almost hoping Nathan won't take him up on it. Evidently his tone has betrayed him because Nathan gives him a grimly humorous look.
"I'll sit," he confirms. "A while longer. It's kind of a critical time."
"Not too long." Chris, eyes wandering across the floor, is emphatic. "That's what me'n Buck are here for." His gaze snaps up to Vin. "You need to rest that leg."
Vin does look at the end of his rope.
"Well now listen," Nathan says. His shoulders are bowed and he's rubbing his injured hand with the fingers of the good one. As if it pains him. "There'll be plenty to do. But for right now I'd like to just sit in here quiet with my patient. I'd like for y'all to just... go. Go eat and get some rest." He gestures as if to hold back the inevitable protests. His voice is thick with fatigue. "Like I say, just for a while longer. Give me half an hour then I'll come look after myself."
Nathan wants to it to be just him and Ezra, that's plain enough. Time to reflect, Buck supposes. The man needs some calm. Maybe he needs to come to terms or perhaps he's got some things to say he didn't get a chance to before. Anyhow, whatever it is, and even if they think it isn't good for him, they have to respect it.
"One half hour," Chris says and Nathan nods vaguely. He's already casting about for something to sit on.
"We'll be back." Buck directs the words at Nathan, although he means them for Ezra too. He feels bad to be leaving, even though he's been itching to leave all night.
And then they're not sure where to go. They step down from the church on to the silent street. It's familiar to them in the way it isn't to most of the townsfolk, this dead of night feeling. Although he hopes he'll be able to persuade J.D., Josiah and Vin to go to bed, Buck knows he and Chris will stay up as long as they have to, or as long as they can. He doesn't know how many hours this "critical time" of Ezra's will last, but remembering when the Judge was shot, and when J.D. was so badly hurt, he's guessing maybe another day and night at least. Before they know which way the wind's blowing.
They find themselves heading towards the saloon. Of course. Although they don't sit in the dark bar as usual, huddled around one lamp and a bottle of BEye. Instead they make for the stove in Inez' kitchen. It needs stoking, building up, but there's still a faint warmth there.
"Get some coffee on," Chris tells Buck and goes to find the whiskey and some glasses.
Buck has to steer Vin into a chair, is well aware from his face how much pain he's in.
"Figure Josiah and J.D. will find us," Chris observes when he comes back in. "Here, drink this down." He pushes a shot in front of Vin's nose. Buck wonders whether, if Vin doesn't seem inclined to take it, Chris will pour it down his throat anyhow.
Vin accepts the glass and drinks the shot. When Chris holds up the bottle he shakes his head.
"Seen a leg come off more than once," he says, "but it weren't nothin' like that."
Buck looks through the gloom of the kitchen at Chris's reaction. Chris catches his eye, raises a brow.
"But it went all right?" Buck slips into a chair opposite, needing to hear it again, from someone who was there.
"Reckon I was expecting the blood," Vin says as if he hasn't heard the question. "Knew it wouldn't stop comin'. Nathan just said keep moppin' it up, Vin, keep moppin' it up. And it was like he couldn't see it, or else he could see through it. Made himself this little square to work in, covered up everythin' else so it didn't look like Ezra no more. Just a hunk of bone with a fuckin' hole in it."
Buck takes a quick swig of his shot. He'd wanted to hear Vin tell them, but forgot Vin wasn't likely to sugar-coat.
"Easy there," he murmurs but Vin just carries on.
"Seen Nathan workin' before, plenty. This though... hell knows how he could see what he was supposed to be doin' with all that... mess. He couldn't tie off nothin' with ligatures and that, had to use pressure." He shifts where he sits, then holds his glass towards Chris and the bottle. When the shot's poured he looks into it for a second before pouring it down his throat and banging the glass on the table. "Reckon Josiah kept wanting to knock those tools right out of Nathan's hand, reckon I did myself because Ezra kept damn well... movin'. Jesus, he kept movin', twitchin', like he could feel it. Won't forget one second of how fuckin' bad that was, not ever." He passes a hand over his face, slowly, as if he's drawing himself back to now, out of that room. Then he looks at them, hikes his brows as if to say 'so there it is'.
"Damn," Buck says. His leg's jiggling again, out of his control, nervous.
Vin gives himself a little shake. "Nathan sure is... skillful."
With that comment he moves the bad leg, stretching it out real slow, rubbing his hand around the joint. Then he lifts the hand, picks at the fingernails, still rimmed in little spots of dried blood. When he looks up, the pain on his face is to do with more than his knee. "Hard to see how a man'd come round from that."
Buck wonders to himself if it'll be their fault if Ezra doesn't. Not Nathan's, for he's done more than anyone to make things better, but theirs, the rest of them. He finds Vin looking at him, like he knows what's on his mind.
"Nathan said he weren't going to last like he was, Buck. Some kind of miracle he lasted this long. What he found in there when he opened him up... well it was real bad, was set to blow, maybe within hours. Ezra wouldn't've survived it."
"We gave him a fightin' chance then," Buck says, relieved to have some justification to clutch at but somehow ashamed of that. He guesses J.D. will appreciate the notion anyhow.
There's quiet, and then Vin speaks again quietly, directly to Chris.
"Reckon he'll take it, that fightin' chance?"
Chris looks at them both and there's a flash of anger in his eye. Buck doesn't know who or what it's directed at. He can see the rim of the fancy sheet of notepaper, Ezra's abortive statement of intent, peeking from his top pocket.
"Who knows," Chris says, curt, and then, "Wouldn't want to bet on him, either way."
They sit for a while without speaking. Vin leans back in the chair, eyes closed. From time to time he touches his knee, flexes the ankle of the bad leg, the sole of his boot scuffing quietly on the floor. Buck goes to fetch the coffee when it's boiled, but Vin doesn't open his eyes when he offers it round.
"Leave him," Chris says in a low voice. The very corner of Vin's mouth curves, to show he's still awake, but it's the way muscles jump when sleep's coming. Buck slips back into his seat. He can't decide if he wants the coffee now, or more whiskey, wipes a hand over his face.
"Reckon we need to keep awake, for Nathan."
Chris just nods, eyes still on Vin.
Doesn't take but those two shots of Red Eye to nudge Vin into a crashing sleep.
Didn't expect that. Expected to stay awake thinking about the mess, Nathan with blood up to his elbows. But no, he rested his head on his hand at some point in those dark early hours, while Buck and Chris were still talking. And he must have slid deep enough to shut out all thoughts of Josiah's back room, all the sounds and smells.
He wakes to the new day stretched out on the settle in the saloon's back room. As he opens his eyes, turns his head, the pool table slides into view. His troublesome leg is elevated on the padded arm of the settle and he has no idea if he thought to position it there himself or if one of the boys did it for him. There's even a comforter thrown over him, which he's pretty sure wasn't there when he laid down, however long ago that was.
Several thoughts canter through his mind as the fog of sleep recedes.
First, nobody's come to wake him with bad news.
Second, though he don't exactly feel like dancing a jig, he reckons he must have gotten a good three or four hours' shuteye.
And third, he can smell breakfast.
All of these are hopeful things, and the sun seems to be shining. Vin can get a kick out of that, even though he knows there's some long days and nights to come one way or another. As he shifts the leg off the arm of the settle, scoots up to sitting, it don't feel too bad. Stiff as a rusty hinge, for sure, but it ain't aching as much as he might have feared.
As usual he has to work out if it's the kind of ache he can stand. Most days he reckons it is, which means he ain't likely to offer it up for fixing. If Ezra had taken him up on his challenge, of course he'd have done it, but Hell... that challenge probably just came too damned late.
His belly is so empty he feels almost light-headed as he gets to his feet.
Inez has a subdued "Buenos dias, Vin," for him when he pokes his head round the door into the kitchen, as well as pancakes, bacon and coffee. He reckons she's been up for a while, finding solace in cooking, which his grandma said his ma always used to do too, when she lost those babies that came before him. He apologizes for coming to the table rank and unkempt, which is something his grandma wouldn't ever have put up with, but she waves him away.
"Eat, signor," she says. "Manners are not so important today. And don't worry, there is plenty for your compadres."
Food, and plenty of it. It's what Inez will do to help.
There's a normal day in swing out on the street. It feels like a different place, a different world from last night. Buck, hat askew and clothes rumpled, is dozing in an attitude of lax exhaustion on a chair outside the jailhouse, looks like he's been there some time. Although he's tempted, Vin doesn't disturb him. He touches his hat for several of the townsfolk as he limps past but doesn't pass the time of day. With any luck, he thinks, Chris and J.D. are still sleeping in their respective boarding-house rooms.
The door of the Potters' store swings open and he's only just in time to avoid being bowled over by Mary Travis carrying a full basket of goods. The accident makes him stagger, putting too much weight on his knee which pains him pretty bad.
"I'm right sorry, ma'am," he says through his teeth, but she's the one full of apologies. She lays down her basket and exclaims over his leg and how careless she's been and how she hopes it hasn't made things worse. As if he's some kind of cripple who needs to be looked after real careful. That kind of thing has annoyed the crap out of him in the past, although he's never shown that to Miz Travis. Today, though, her concern doesn't seem so trying.
"And is it true?" she asks almost without pause when she's finished with that. "About Ezra? And the operation?"
Cautious, he scratches the stubbly side of his face while he's thinking how best to answer, wondering what she's heard and how. No sense pretending nothing's happened.
"Nathan did some operatin' all right, ma'am, late last night. After Ezra had his... fall."
He doesn't know why he couldn't say 'fit'.
"I heard Ezra was on his feet after that," Mary Travis says, eyes puzzled. "Did he change his mind... about having the surgery? I thought he'd said no."
Ah hell, Chris was going to love this. Already town was gossiping.
"Nathan didn't have no choice," Vin says, hating that he don't know how to explain it all, that he sounds defensive. He's worried about revealing Ezra's actions, about dropping Nathan in the shit.
"Oh dear," Mary Travis says, and her voice is soft. "Poor Nathan."
"Yep, and poor Ezra. Jus' goin' along to see how he's doin' this morning. Ma'am." He tips his hat, sets off again, determined not to limp.
It's quiet in the church, the candles burned down into puddles. He thinks he's going to be all right, walking into Josiah's room.
"Vin comin' in," he says, tapping on the closed door before he enters.
It's dim inside, the single lamp burning on the low stand by the cot. Josiah's sitting there with his shirtsleeves rolled up from the night before. His eyes are closed and he's leaning forward, elbows on his knees. Both forearms are resting on the mound of blankets and he's holding one of Ezra's hands within his own.
Vin swallows, wishing he hadn't come. The smell of carbolic is still overpowering, Ezra looks god-awful sick, the taint of blood and metal drags at the atmosphere and the room feels lifeless as a crypt.
"Vin," Josiah says in a scratchy voice, eyes popping open.
"You bin here all night?"
"Lord, I do hope so."
Vin looks at Ezra's head a little closer as he moves forward, and shakes his own. The binding is still in place where Nathan packed the wound with wool, covered it in lint and bandaging. Now there's an odd glint, as if a part is sculpted in metal. Vin guesses tin foil ain't just for cavities, and runs a tongue over the molars in his jaw. There's a rumble of nausea on his full belly when he thinks about last night.
"Don't s'pose he's wakin' up?"
Josiah looks along his arms, at the still hand in his own. "Don't suppose he is."
Vin leans his butt on the table edge, favoring the bad leg. It's still throbbing after the encounter with Mary. "Fever?"
"Seems so. Body don't like being treated that way, Nathan says. Bound to react."
"Said he found the trouble though. Fixed it."
Josiah looks up as if alerted by the anxious tone. "He did. And if we can just get Ezra through this..."
Looking at Ezra now that seems a tough job. Last night he looked wax-white and still. Today he's gray and unfamiliar, skin shrunk against his bones. Vin loosens his bandanna. It's warm in the room, much warmer than a few hours before. The little stove is burning and the window's closed. Ezra's nearly mummified in blankets. No damned wonder he has a fever.
"What was he doing up on the tower?" Vin realizes he's been putting off thinking about that.
"I can't be sure," Josiah says, weary and uncomfortable. "But I certainly intend to ask him."
"He say anything? Was he gonna jump? Shoot himself?"
Vin can't not ask the questions, even though they hurt, even though they seem low.
"No, he had nothing to say. Not in words."
After searching the drawn face for a few seconds, Vin puffs out a sigh. "You didn't let him down or nothin', Josiah."
"It was a deal with the Devil. One of us was bound to let the other down. I think I'm rather glad it was me."
Vin nods, thinking it through. After another pause he shifts position. "Suppose you go on and have some breakfast."
"Breakfast?" Josiah looks surprised at that notion and then unsure.
"Yep, Inez has plenty. Suppose you go on and have some. I'll take a turn here." Vin pushes off the table. "I'm sure Ezra wouldn't mind. Heck, reckon he wouldn't mind if you needed to take a few hours' sleep in his room either."
"If things are going well," Josiah says as if reporting an official bulletin. "We may move him to Nathan's this evening." He seems reluctant to let go of Ezra.
"I can do that." Vin holds out his hand to show the preacher what he means. "Give'm something to hang on to."
"Well, I don't know about hang on. Just figured he'd have one less to punch us with when he wakes up." Slowly Josiah pulls free. The hand slides from his, inert. "Sure did put up a struggle."
"Sure did," Vin agrees, and pats the lump that may be one of Ezra's feet. "Near enough took my teeth out."
They exchange a look which isn't a smile. It's more like acknowledgement that they'd both been there.
It's pretty much a long day with few changes save the dressings on the wound. Town needs to behave itself because the sitting, the waiting, the making sure it isn't only Nathan doing the caring, is taking all their concentration.
Even without Ezra to watch over there's things to work out.
"Gonna wire his ma?" J.D. asks Chris on the second day.
Twenty four hours after the operation finished they carried the patient, under cover of darkness, out of the church and up to Nathan's clinic room on a stretcher. It's not quite the same standard as his own feather-bed in there, but it's a step up from Josiah's austere cot, and they somehow feel he'll like it better.
The kid's needing to do the right thing. Worrying at it like a bone.
"She'd want to come sit with him wouldn't she?"
"You'd think," comes Chris's blunt response.
They don't know Maude Standish all that well except as a formidable poker opponent, not even Josiah who managed half a dinner with her once before she excused herself. What they do know is that Ezra never seems truly delighted when she comes to visit, although he always treats her real polite, in public, when she's here. And there's a connection between them, of course. Mother and son. A mutual knowledge of long standing, a history forged in blood and hardship.
"She's his mother, of course she'd want to come sit with him," Buck says. "But think about it... has he ever wanted her to? I ain't even second-guessin' him here, J.D. He never did, not any of the times he was laid low. We didn't even hafta ask him, he dang well told us. So there. If he asks for her, we'll send her a wire." He sounds right testy, glares round at them all. "Let's go with Ezra on this one for a change, and not with what other folk think's the thing to do."
Chris makes a hand gesture as if he's given Buck the floor, given him the say-so.
Vin thinks this whole thing, since Gabe Palmer hit his target, since Ezra began to fail, since Nathan first got that present from Freiber... it's like that explosion out at the quarry. There's fuckin' debris everywhere, so much, all so mixed up and confused, you could never find it all, never feel like everything was put back how it's supposed to be or how it was before.
Nathan hasn't the patience to talk about any of that—Maude Standish and if they were right to pin Ezra to the operating table. Whether he should have tried what he did, seeing as Ezra was so dead set against it, or whether Ezra really decided to end his own life rather than risk being defective.
"Don't bother me with that," he'll growl when he catches them at it once again. All he's focused on is getting Ezra from one hour to the next.
And hell knows it ain't easy.
Nathan don't hold back on how he feels about it all either. Tells them he doesn't think he'll ever rid himself of the feel of the inside of a man's head. The soft, open wound. How Ezra jerked alive like a puppet every time a clamp or scalpel pressed down.
"Never let me do anything like that again. Never. You hear me? I ain't gonna be a surgeon no more. I'll set bones and I'll dig out bullets, but I ain't ever cuttin' into a man like that again."
"You don't mean that, brother," the preacher says, and Vin can't decide if he hopes Josiah's right.
So the fever bubbles up. Course it does, and it's a worry, but it's not what Nathan was dreading the most. Biggest likelihood, he'd always said, was that overwhelming infection would race through Ezra after the trauma and he wouldn't have enough left to fight it. The wound might be awful ugly, the stitching black and raw-looking against the dark bruises and swelling, but it's cleaned and cared for. They must be doing something right because it doesn't turn nasty. Well, any nastier than it already is. No, the rampaging fever's just Ezra.
"He's mad with us all right," Nathan says, the frown permanently etched to his brow, hand to the burning cheek. And then he sighs. "But probably mostly me."
Vin wonders how that will work—if Nathan will save a friend one way just to lose him another.
The fever climbs, burning Ezra up from the inside. There's no sign of him regaining consciousness, or doing anything much but going down without a murmur. Seems there ain't going to be no medical miracle, and Vin can hear Ezra's drawl declaring that he always told them so. It seems like a voice from long ago, and Vin's sick with the thought there won't be no more of it.
"What're you thinking?" he asks Chris, late at night when they're sitting together in the cool outside the Gem.
It's three days by then since Ezra was taken to Nathan's and none of them have much had a chance to talk.
Chris and Vin have spent the daylight hours today with Buck, tracking down a couple of juvenile horse thieves before a cattle baron's trigger-happy foreman could get to them first. There's been a stew of claim and counter-claim, with threats of a lynching, and two wild youngsters on the loose who don't seem to have no respect for anything, including their own lives. They're in the jail-house now along with Gabe and Abner who don't know whether to be pleased for the distraction or surly about having to wait longer for attention.
Nathan's been busy too, had to take Josiah with him to a birthing out of town in a family who'd been blunt in the past that no negro healer was going near their kin. They ain't even back yet, and even though Vin and Chris are taking a moment, there's the thought they might have to go make sure everything's all right out there.
Usually Vin doesn't feel the need to ask such questions, not so direct anyhow, but Chris is wound up tighter than Vin's ever seen him. He knows why, too, and feels the same knot of self-disgust himself.
"That's easy." Despite his glib tone Chris's lips are a thin line and his jaw is tight. "I'm thinking if it goes badly for Ezra now, there's only one person to blame. There was always only one fuckin' person to blame."
"Yep," Vin agrees, although there's no relief in it.
"Still ain't no justification for... don't make it right, what we did."
"He's alive. If it weren't fer what we did, he wouldn't be."
Chris looks sideways at him through the gloom. "That you talkin'?" he asks. "Or J.D.?"
"Listen," Vin says. He knows the argument is sound but that doesn't make things any easier to face, and it doesn't make Chris's stubborn self-reproach any easier to counter. "We had to back Nathan when it came to it, all of us, however the hell we felt before. Couple hours, that was all Ezra had if Nathan didn't pick up his knife and go in. And that weren't no guess. Fuckin' saw it fer myself, I was lookin' into his head."
"Yeah, and I was lookin' into his eyes." Chris pushes himself forward violently. His elbows are on his knees and he's rubbing the center of his brow with his clasped hands.
Vin shifts in discomfort, although this time it's not his leg. He looks to the right, down the street towards the jail, chews on the tobacco bit in his cheek.
"Would you do any different then, if you had the chance?"
Chris gives a humorless snort of a laugh. "Hell," he says, lifting his head. "Now there's a question for the ages."
"Uh-huh." Vin's resolute. "And?" He absorbs the sour look Chris gives him, because he figures they just have to think about these answers, even if it piles hurt on hurt.
"Backing Ezra, helping Nathan... seems like those choices were right and wrong at the same fuckin' time, both times. That wouldn't change even if we had the chance to do it over, whatever we chose this time around." Chris's face has gone hard again. "Could talk it to death and I'm guessin' we likely all will... but seems to me what we did was no different than if we'd bushwhacked Ezra on the trail, tied him up, beat him bloody and stole everything he had."
Vin doesn't disagree. Change out the circumstances just a little and the law'd likely call it assault. He moves the tobacco bit to the other side of his mouth, leans towards the spittoon. There's a slap as the wad hits the metal.
"And you gonna beat yaself up over it?"
"Damn right I am, so are you."
The others too, Vin guesses. Josiah's acting like he's been in Purgatory for three days straight, and J.D. seems to want Buck to tell him, so there ain't no doubt, who was right and who was wrong—which Buck don't appreciate. It's just so damned hard to know how to fix things for one another, so Vin turns to something they can do.
"How long we givin' Josiah and the doc?"
Chris rocks himself to his feet. Damn but he looks tired.
"Mary's doing a spell over yonder," he says, indicating the rooms above the livery. "Reckon we should mosey up the road a ways now, see if they're coming."
They're not done talking, but Vin knows they have to do it in pieces. It's the kind of talk that will take time and may never be settled anyhow. Just as they get down to the livery they hear horses' hooves coming past the church and he feels a wave of relief. One less thing to sour the mix.
"Evenin', boys," Chris says as Josiah and Nathan come into sight. "Everything all right?"
"A son." Josiah's serious, heavily-bearded face is lit up by the watch fire under the livery steps as his horse steps to a halt. "Mother and child doin' well."
"May not be namin' the baby after me," Nathan adds in weary voice, but there's a brief flash of white from his teeth. Then he searches Vin and Chris's faces, as far as he can see them.
"No better," is all Chris says, shoulders tensing. "And a full house at the jail."
"Well," Nathan says as he dismounts, hands off his horse to Vin. "Just as well I wasn't holding out for a good night's sleep then."
His eyes, full and dark, turn towards the lighted room above. He's itching to get back up there, Vin can tell, won't pause to do nothing else. Probably hoping that this time when he goes in there'll be some little change he can spot that none of the rest of them could, some sign that'll tell him things might be going better. Vin can understand his tenacity. This ain't just to do with Ezra. It's to do with Nathan Jackson and everything he is.
The next day the Palmers are told when they're being taken to Eagle Bend, and that worries the stuffing out of Gabe.
Protected youngest son, he's just now started to work out that maybe he'll be the one up on the capital charge and that the tide has turned against him. All these months down the line that fancy-ass lawman he felled in a moment of wanton temper will finally expire from his injury. There ain't no more brothers and uncles to hide behind. And Silas Gawtrey has made sure he can no longer be reached.
"Hell, I didn't hit him that hard!" he complains, strident as ever.
"But you did hit him?" Chris's growl is real soft.
"I had to!" Gabe snarls back at him, jaw jutted, no more sense than he ever had. "He shot my brother! What the hell else would any man do 'cept try and break his fuckin' head?" He gestures sourly at his arm, where Chris's bullet had stopped a second, fatal strike. "Shoulda broken your fuckin' head too."
Yeah, Gabe has always been somewhat proud of his action, somewhat confident that there'd be mitigation in his plea of fraternally motivated reprisal. In the other cell the two young horse thieves stare at Gabe with a sullen interest that makes Vin feel tired. Abner Palmer, lying on his cot, just rolls his eyes, calls his cousin a jackass.
"You ready to go through it all again?" Chris asks Vin.
"If I have to."
Hell, if it comes to it, Vin thinks he might just want to this time. The trial date is provisionally set, although the Judge is busy enough it could be a month or more. They just don't know what the full charges will be yet. For Gabe it's looking like second degree murder every hour that passes, it really is, but they just don't know.
Not until the early morning Buck comes down from the clinic where he's been holding vigil overnight.
Chris and Josiah are saddling up outside the livery. They're riding out to meet the Sheriff of Eagle Bend halfway, talk about what's going to happen and how they can work together. There may not be anymore Palmers left on earth, save the womenfolk, but the combined populations of Four Corners and Eagle Bend could prove more than a handful on trial day if they get to thinking justice don't suit. J.D. and Vin are staying in town but they've mustered at the livery too as the whole bunch of them can't seem to stop herding together. It's the same as it was before that first trial in Ridge City, in the days when Vin could have beaten any man in town in a flat sprint.
Wild-haired and bristly, Buck descends the steps at a jittery lope, looks as if he's about to tell them something.
"Buck?" Chris says but Buck looks right past him. Now he's down on the street it seems he can't speak.
Nathan's on the steps behind him, coming down real slow. His face isn't schooled into calm like it has been since he picked up the trephine to make that burr hole in Ezra's head. He doesn't look big and broad and strong like he normally does but seems diminished, as if he's about to crumple. Just one look at him and Vin starts to hear his own heartbeat thumping, feels a whorl of blinding fury begin to build behind his eyes.
Nathan seems stunned. As if something's happened that, after all, after everything he warned them about, he hadn't really been ready for at all.
He swallows thickly before he speaks and then the words come out shaky and not like Nathan at all. Hell, to Vin it sounds as if Nathan's about to cry. As if he's about to break down and bawl in front of them like a newborn.
Vin has the certain thought that he's talking to them in that doctor's comfort-speak way, using words that don't sound as bad as the reality but saying the same terrible thing when you get right down to it.
'Sleeping with the angels.'
'In a better place now.'
All the nice things they said about his ma when that cruel fever about burned her alive.
"Sleeping?" Chris repeats in suspicious croak.
Nathan's head wags, either a nod or a shake, they can't tell. It's as if he's having to force himself to move because his body won't hardly do what he wants it to anymore.
"Can't speak or nothin' and he's right poorly, but his eyes were open—just now, jus' for a second—and I know he knew me. Fever's broken and now he's... sleeping."
"Yeah," Buck says, voice unsteady. "Because what else would Ezra do?"
Chris grabs the top of the saddle. He leans his head against the inside of his arm.
All the anger and fear chasing its way out of Vin's system makes him want to sit down on the boardwalk steps, real quick.
"He's all right?" J.D. pipes up as if he worries he's missed something. "He's going to be fine now?"
Nathan wipes a hand under his nose, but can't get out any more words.
"I think," Buck says, slinging an arm around J.D.'s neck and pulling him in to his side for a moment before he gently shoves him away again, "that Nathan's sayin' we might have more trouble ahead than we've already had, but... today, for right now, Ezra's doin' fine."
Chris straightens up from his saddle. He meets Vin's eyes where he's slumped down the boardwalk, then he looks up at Nathan, one arm hanging on to the hitching post at the bottom of the steps. Slow, heavy, as if pushing through treacle Chris moves forward and puts out his hand.
"Helluva good job," he says. Nathan looks at the hand, seems doubtful, as if it might be tempting Fate.
"Long way to go."
"We know it."
Chris's lips almost quirk in recognition of the familiar caution, although his face remains as sober as before. Nathan takes the hand after a second more, and they shake, solemn. Then Chris just turns and leaves his horse, and all of them, begins to walk up the street.
After a moment Buck looks at the others, frustrated, and then at Chris's retreating figure.
"Where you going?" he calls out.
Chris doesn't look back. He just raises a hand, lazy. Maybe he's telling them all to come with him.
It's a hell of a long sleep Ezra has. A sleep that clings to him like death. He doesn't know until much later that he spends long days sinking in and out, sometimes so deep his return seems unlikely.
But he does return, even though it doesn't feel exactly like his choice.
Every time the physiological response kicks in Ezra doesn't know if he wants to open his eyes. Or if he even can. Each occasion is a grudging ascent, hand over hand up a sheer rock face. He knows he's alive after a fashion, can increasingly sense the space and feel of the bed he's lying in. There's an awareness, disturbing more than comforting, that he's never alone. It takes many fleeting episodes of consciousness before he can rationalize anything much outside of an immense wall of pain.
The world he glimpses past the wall is fractured, unwelcome. After a while he sees faces but doesn't want to. Then some recognition trips, the unwilling attribution of names to blurred images. Instinct more than cooperation makes him respond to distant commands to drink and not fuss with his head.
It's when they mention his head that he remembers more, begins to make sense of the hollow feeling he has, the chill in his chest. He recalls the evening air blowing on his face at the top of the bell tower. Then the table.
Oh dear God the table. He becomes dizzy trying to pull up the memories and then push them down.
He's fed warm water, sweet or salt. It pools in his stomach. Every time one of them is near he wants to cringe away, too raw to stand the touch. But he's powerless and they do it anyway, wiping his hands, his face, making him shiver.
"You're here," one of them says, like they don't want him to remember anywhere else.
He's here all right.
He's here because Nathan cut open his head. And although he hasn't yet discovered what, Ezra is certain something went wrong.
The realization is as unbearable as he always knew it would be, although every time the pain explodes he doesn't even care anymore. He just wants to be dead.
Those first days after Ezra wakes up are grueling. Especially when he's far enough out of the backwash of fever that he can actually feel what's been done. Never mind what he thinks about it.
Now Nathan can preach a good sermon on the best uses of laudanum as a general rule. Chris has heard him. He'll say that not easing unmanageable pain, when you have the power to do it, is akin to torturing a man. Chris has been bad hurt enough himself in the past to know the blessed relief of opiates but with Ezra, Nathan's suddenly downright hesitant. There's more than one of them has words with him over the course of Ezra's gradual grasp of full consciousness. They're kind of nervy to tell the truth, about narcotics and forcing anything else on Ezra at all. But it doesn't take too long before they've had enough of seeing him battle the hurt and can't imagine that wound gouged into the side of his head feels anything less than fuckin' unbearable.
"Jus' ain't a good idea," Nathan says, intractable, even when things are really bad. So bad J.D. has to up and leave, breathe some outside air and get himself together. "Freiber sent me whole papers on how it ain't safe straight after brain surgery."
"That fuckin' Freiber!" Buck rages, exhaustion stripping away all checks he has on his temper. "Can't you just go back to being a goddamned healer with some kind of heart, 'stead of some high and mighty doctor who does everythin' by the book? Can you hear the fuckin' state Ezra's in – you tellin' us you ain't gonna do nothin' about it?"
"Come this far without killin' him, Buck. Sure as hell don't intend to do it now."
Chris isn't sure whether he's impressed by the steely pragmatism, or whether he thinks Nathan maybe needs taking down a peg or two.
"Buck." He has to get himself between them out on the balcony above the livery. "Simmer down now." His first thought was that he didn't see any alternative but going with Nathan on this, as they've gone with him on everything. But it niggles at him fierce. Pushing Buck away gently with one hand, he faces Nathan. "Listen, I know you understand the dangers better than us, know you want this to be textbook. But I think we should take the risk, give him some fuckin' respite."
Nathan shakes his head, but he can see something in Chris's expression maybe. He squeezes shut his eyes, opens them again.
"And you reckon overruling me'd be something Ezra might appreciate, right?"
Chris swallows, feels a loosening in his chest at last. "Reckon it might."
"Fine," Nathan says. "Then I'll do it."
And maybe it's the laudanum that helps pull Ezra back into the land of the living. Or maybe it's just time and care. They hope it's some stubborn-ass part of Ezra himself as well. Whichever it is, there's a corner he turns at some stage. Stops his god-awful rocking and clawing, those stomach-churning, low-toned whines of distress. They find him calm more often, sitting up, dozing on and off like a regular patient.
He doesn't speak or smile at them though. Doesn't even move his mouth to try. Not for the longest time.
"He ain't got the strength yet," Nathan tells them with confidence. "Don't mean he can't."
Then, when he probably should be able, he still doesn't.
It drives Chris crazy. He can admit he'd been dreading looking into those open eyes again, and now he's faced with them they remain steadfastly unfriendly. Ezra can't or won't do a thing to make it easier on him.
"Got nothin' to say to us?"
Even in the sick room, with Ezra not looking like Ezra and Chris not managing to be as calm as Nathan insists, it feels like there's sparks between the two of them, like Ezra's testing him, more than ever. In other ways he starts to get stronger, but the days of recovery continue to go by with Ezra not saying a word. One side of his face looks permanently tired.
"All right," Nathan concedes in the end. "Maybe he's just got to learn all over again."
He's right of course, and it's not the only thing Ezra has to learn all over again. Even when he can sit on the side of the bed, get up on his feet without toppling over, turns out there's still whole missing chunks of strength and coordination. It ties Chris up in knots, especially when Ezra don't seem able to put one foot in front of the other.
Man don't go about being the same after an operation like that – Nathan's words come back to them, grimly prophetic. They remember that chair-bound, slobbering cousin Ezra had told them about, and Chris and Buck remember Private Miller.
"You reckon this is better than that?" Buck says to him after one particularly dispiriting day when Ezra can't seem to pick up a cup and spoon but sure can hurl it against a wall. And hit that same wall with his fist so hard he cracks the plaster and draws blood.
"You sure about that?"
"course I'm not fuckin' sure, Buck! But it's like I said, we'll deal with it. Can't just go around in goddamned circles wondering if one pile of crap is better than another."
Josiah shows more faith and more optimism. "We help him, he'll heal," he says firmly.
Chris wonders what the best help is. He makes himself go sit with Ezra as often as he can. It's almost like a penance and after a while he decides that Ezra knows that too. In fact he seems to know a whole lot of things. There's no forgiveness on offer, just an atmosphere you could cut with a knife. But somehow even that, even the discomfort of meeting Ezra's vivid, charged gaze head on, is some kind of relationship.
"Used to wish for a chance to just talk at you, not get any of your long-winded yap in return," Chris tells him. "Turns out it ain't as much fun as I thought."
Ezra swallows and his mouth works as if he's about to speak, but that shadow crosses his face, the remembrance that he can't remember quite how. That he daren't humiliate himself by trying and failing. Instead, the stronger of his two hands lifts off the patterned quilt sent from the Seminole village, and gestures in what Chris decides is a sarcastic invitation to carry on.
"Yeah, well reckon I can tell what you think of me, of us. Can't see as I blame you much for it either and I'm not expecting we can pretend it didn't happen. I'm just fuckin' sorry we crossed that line, and I ain't a bit proud of it. But can't say I'm sorry you're alive either."
Again Ezra swallows and the hand clenches slightly and then releases.
When they ask if he wants to wire his mother, tell her whatever he wants to tell her, Ezra indicates a wary positive. He can't wield the pencil, so Josiah writes out something. And then something else and something else again. That Ezra refuses to be satisfied until Josiah's grinding his teeth with frustration actually makes Chris feel better than he has for some time.
Even more when the Palmers are out of their jurisdiction and they don't have to look at them, speak to them or feed them anymore.
Now Nathan's on a new mission. Explaining that however they come, Ezra needs to try some words. Else he's going to lock himself in for good.
"Think he's more scared than incapable," is his assessment, although it seems he does feel bound to admit he really doesn't know much about how these things work.
In the end it's a combination of Inez and Mary that gets the first words out. Chris figures it's because they don't bring half so much tension into the sick-room. Not that it works overnight. Ezra doesn't start stringing his old, long sentences together right away. Even when he's up and about, dressed and sitting out on the boardwalk or in the dimmest reaches of the saloon he's not up to having... conversations. Hell, turns out there'll be months before that happens. And it's hard. There's more than just his words that are bottled up inside. Sometimes Ezra reminds Chris of a stick of dynamite.
Time and space, that's what the doctor orders. Of course, Ezra's problems are a whole other expert field Nathan's not had much chance to explore. Chris suspects he's still in contact with Freiber about everything, but not likely to reveal it when everything's still so sensitive between them all. The box of surgical tools is, as far as they can tell, firmly back in that locked cupboard, and the big book that went with it seems to have disappeared. That at least seems strange, because Nathan does love his books.
"Maybe he burned it," Vin suggests.
There's a bemused silence after that.
"Why would he?"
Vin pauses before he answers J.D.'s question, and then shrugs. "Think it got kinda... spoiled."
Chris remembers the last time he saw it, propped up at Nathan's right hand under the fierce, bright light of the safety lamp.
"We can get him another," he says, surprised by his own generosity. "If he really wants."
So, they've taken it one day at a time. It's taken a lot of care, a lot of man hours. Still does.
Ezra always gets the pains in his head. They can get real bad at times, but not nearly so often, and at least they don't drop him from standing like they used to. Don't reduce him to ruins. Nathan can't say he'll never have another fit or nothing, but each day he doesn't comes to seem like victory, like recovery. Despite what Ezra said before about unholy pacts and all, he kind of agreed he wouldn't go hiding himself away anymore. He lets them look out for him, although he does have an upper limit on that, won't put up with too much fuss. In any case, hell, there's not much more he can hide, not now he's been sliced open. And there ain't much mileage in being alone either since he done decided he didn't want to leave them. Still gets proddy about it though. And thank God he does, Vin thinks, for he'd get proddy about it too, if it was him. In some ways, it is him. For, after having left a respectable time from Ezra's recovery, one day Nathan just says,
"Well, you gonna let me at your leg?"
Since the last he heard was that Nathan had foresworn surgery for good, Vin's taken aback. He isn't any more comfortable with the knife than he ever was, although he knows better than almost anyone just how fine a sawbones Nathan Jackson is. That he has the hands and the heart and the brain of a fully qualified physician, never mind he don't have no certificates. But there's a thought he keeps having. Even with the days of stiffness when he can't hardly get up into the saddle. Or when it locks up and he can't do nothing useful that involves walking about. The thought's about how it might just be all right to live with things the way they are, even if they're far from perfect and even if it means he has to change the idea he has of himself just a tad. Long as the others are around, not too far away.
"If I take care of it," he says in vague explanation to Nathan, who don't seem to understand why he wouldn't just come lie down on the operating table good as gold.
"You know, don't you, that I ain't going to stop trying to change your mind?" Nathan usually has a smile on his face when he says that, but Vin believes him all right.
Ezra don't have no superior words of advice for him on it, which is surprising. In fact, Ezra don't talk nearly half as much as he used to. When he gets his words back he's sharp all right, sharp enough to draw blood, to hit the mark dead center same as ever. But sometimes now he'll just keep his mouth shut about things when he never would before.
So for a start he keeps his mouth shut about what they all did. As if he can't face it and they damned well wouldn't like it if he tried.
Whether he remembers them bodily holding him down to the table when he was begging them not to they don't know for certain. Vin suspects he must. There don't seem to be no foggy spots. Ezra knows he passed out by the post office. He knows he came to in his room and needed to be on his feet, out in the open air. Yep, and he knows was up on the bell-tower. Admits he was never so clear nor so confused in his life about what he was going to do next.
Vin thinks he was right, that Ezra's finding it impossible to truly forgive them for what they did. Whether it saved his life or his brain or anything makes no difference to that.
"Mr. Jackson got his way," he'll say, casual but more than a little cold. "And there is no more to be said since he is clearly a very fine surgeon."
He dances around their culpability and his own gratitude. It's as if he don't quite have the courage or confidence yet to tell them what he thinks, how fuckin' hurt he is, how much he holds against them. You can catch him sometimes, with a look on his face like he's trying to stare into his own mind. And then other times you catch him looking at Nathan or Chris as if he alone knows something particular about them and it ain't always a friendly look either.
"After this," Josiah says, brave enough to pull the tiger's tail. "Are you going to change your opinion of your fellow man? Or carry on, 'no trust, no faith, no honesty'?"
"'All perjured, all foresworn, all nought, all dissemblers...'?" Ezra manages a smile of triumph, although it's kind of a cool one, not convincing enough yet to show gold. He taps his head as if to show off his memory of them fancy words. "Of course I'm not going to change my opinion." When he looks round the group he means them too, maybe. But he covers it quickly, slides his eyes at once to some other table in the saloon. "Good Lord, have you seen some of the rabble we have in today?"
His memory seems to be the wholest part of him now. He remembers shooting Ring Palmer all those months ago, that day Vin wished he'd been able to forget himself.
"I winged him, didn't I," he says, more a statement than a question. "He drew on me as I was coming up on them in that graveyard, after all that damage. We were tracking him and Gabe, planning to take them in. You and Chris were there, but by misfortune I was there sooner. I winged him, and then something... came at me."
For the first time since it happened those blanks are filled in and make sense. He remembers the actual words Vin hollered. That warning, the urgency firing at him across open ground.
Atcha back, Ezra!
And how he'd been on the turn when he heard it, had been about to trip the rig, not expecting the blow that fell.
They reckon he'll be able to step up on that witness stand in Eagle Bend and tell what he knows. May not make one jot of difference to what happens to Gabe and Abner, mind, but he'll have played his part.
Privately Nathan's honest; don't think he'll make old bones. But then again, Ezra don't quite suit a wrinkled dotage, any more than any of 'em do, except maybe Nathan himself. And J.D. of course.
Ezra's ma, well she's mostly just as breezy and pretending she ain't worried as before, even though she don't know the half of it. Still, she can't fail to see he has a weakness on one side now. And the brain sure is a strange thing because it's the right hand that won't always do what he wants, not the left where he got hit. It ain't that the hand's not tricky, just that it don't always behave. Frustrates the hell out of him, means he can't use the rig properly no more. Just as well he can shoot with his left too because it's soon clear he can't trust in his aim with the right, and that makes him a good deal more mean-tempered sometimes than he ever used to be. Vin can understand that all right. He don't feel too sunny-tempered himself at the knowledge he can't cover ground the way he used to, can't stay in the saddle as long as he once did. There's a failure in that, as well as making all seven of them more vulnerable. Vin doesn't explode over it though, not like Ezra does once or twice.
There's some shallow-buried rage in him for sure. They have to let that roll over them, or just accept it because it's a price they're paying for what they did. Nathan says it's another miracle Ezra ain't changed personality altogether, and he ain't even joking.
Even with the gimpy hand, you'd still feel sorry for anyone who tried to take advantage. His other one works just fine when it comes to poker, although he's had to learn the cards again, and some of the magic.
His ma about lost every ounce of that serene way of hers when she first saw him. When she came in off the stage the first time and he was sitting in a quiet corner of the saloon, his head still all bandaged, bruised and shaven, like he'd been in a battle, or come out of some hellhole of a prison. Well, there was a look on her face that showed just how shook up she was. Buck, who was in there with him, reckons she didn't quite know whether to cry or turn right around and get back on the stage.
"Darlin', your beautiful hair!" was the first thing she said according to Buck. And she couldn't seem to get past it, the way it was all gone, or growing back different. She didn't much leave his side that whole visit, although you'd never have known how bad she felt about it because she just jabbered on about every other thing the whole time.
The scar is one hell of a nasty one too, worse than before and can't be completely hidden. Vin reckons Ezra's ma don't want to think about it. She'll drop her eyes away, and that hurts Vin, cuts him to the quick. Still, even though her boy might not look quite the same or be quite as useful as he was, she sure does seem to write him more often. And to be a mite kinder when she comes.
"You ever send that letter to her?" J.D. asks him one day, bold as brass.
Ezra just does that eyebrow thing, then shakes his head. He always does it carefully now, like he has a stiff neck that never goes away.
"So it weren't important?" Damn but the kid has balls.
That makes Ezra smile a little, although probably only to be kind to J.D. "Some of it was," he says, mysterious. He seems genuinely surprised that they didn't tear into it and read every word.
And Chris asks about his letter that wasn't a letter, too. Vin knows that, because he heard him, although the two of them went off into a long huddle like they tend to do these days, so he didn't get to learn what it was that never got written down. Ezra withdraws when the topic comes up in front of the rest, because it's dangerous ground.
"If... circumstances hadn't intervened, it would merely have been a short note about the proper care of my horse," he says, and it's left hanging in the air as to whether this would have been a temporary or permanent request.
"Nathan didn't manage to cut the bullshit out of you then," is Chris's response, obviously knowing better. Vin's quite glad to hear that because from time to time he worries they all had something cut out of them.
But with Ezra... well, he's leveled out far as all the doctoring things go. He's not sliding down that slope anymore, but Vin would be lying if he was to say his friend's good as new. He'd be lying too if he was to claim the seven of them can carry on like before.
They'll be stayin' on in town a while longer, though. Judge Travis hasn't said how long, but he hasn't told them to get lost yet either. Something else that came out of the huddle was that Chris reckons Ezra won't stick around after all this, that he needs some space and time to find his feet again by himself, decide if he still wants to be a part of whatever they are now and whatever they become.
For Vin that makes a whole lot of sense, even if he don't like the idea of not being able to look out for him. But he's lived amongst enough different peoples living side by side in hard situations, seen all kinds cross sacred lines and break promises to one another. He knows building and re-building trust is a slow negotiation with no guaranteed outcome, however great the rewards. Sometimes leaving is the only way to stay.
"Nothing remains the same."
That's what Ezra says, and it's a funny mix of wisdom and threat.
"Ain't always a bad thing," is what Vin says right back.
He'll still wake up sometimes in a cold sweat. It isn't the surgery, the way they set upon Ezra, that whole bloody night in Josiah's room. Vin would have expected nightmares from all of that, thought it would stick with him the way he knows it does with Chris. But no, he'll sit bolt upright, nauseous, with that moment in the graveyard branded behind his eyes instead.
The impact, the plangent sound of iron on bone, made a sound he can still hear. It makes his stomach turn over, the thought of the damage so much rage can do.
Ezra was hit on the head so hard, so hard.
So hell, 'course he ain't good as new, not even close. But maybe about damned good enough all the same.
If he balances his leg the right way to ease his own hurts for a little longer, Vin don't really feel so bad about how things turned out. Not for Ezra, and not for the rest.
He even reckons that when any of them pack their bags and go, whether it's for one month, six months, or fifteen goddamned years, they'll likely be back.
He reckons likely they will.
Before his [Sir Astley Cooper's] time, operations were too often frightful alternatives or hazardous compromises; and they were not seldom considered rather as the resource of despair than as a means of remedy; he always made them follow, as it were, in the natural course of treatment; he gave them a scientific character; and he moreover, succeeded, in a great degree, in divesting them of their terrors, by performing them unostentatiously, simply, confidently, and cheerfully, and thereby inspiring the patient with hope of relief, where previously resignation under misfortune had too often been all that could be expected from the sufferer.
(Sir John Forbes, 1840 – the Scottish inventor of the stethoscope, physician to Queen Victoria from 1841-1861; he took over from the eminent English surgeon Sir Astley Cooper, whose work he much admired)
Josiah and Ezra sprinkle some Shakespeare here and there once again:
there's no trust, no faith, no honesty, in men; all perjured, all forsworn, all nought, all dissemblers (Romeo and Juliet, 3.2)
life every man holds dear but the dear man holds honour far more precious dear than life (Hector, Troilus and Cressida, 5.3)