Hope In The Midst of Despair (cont)
Vin was frustrated with himself. Not only was he having a hard time tracking Ezra, he felt responsible for the man going missing. He could have easily exchanged patrols with any of the others and accompanied Ezra to his new property. The tracker wanted to, but he also knew that if he'd just won some land, he'd check it out alone before bringing others along. Hell, with this group, teasing and insults was part and parcel. It gave them all a sense of belonging, if they would admit it, but it also made it easy to want to keep things to oneself before presenting a target.
Now, he was miles from town, Ezra was missing and he had no idea what they were up against. He'd left a trail easy enough for the others to follow, and Vin knew once they got the message they would ride hell bent to catch up, probably by morning. It was with that small bit of hope in his heart that he let himself finally fall asleep.
"Buck!" Larabee's yell overrode the remaining sounds of gunfire, carrying clear and true through the street. Pain and anguish filled him as he saw his oldest friend fall to the ground. He didn't consciously know he pulled the trigger on his own weapon, until he saw the man crumple. His second bullet embedded right in the wood where Chris could have sworn another person had been standing.
"Chris?" JD called as he ran toward him from the opposite side down the street, his guns in his hands, eyes roving for trouble.
"There!" Chris pointed to the alley in front of the young peacekeeper. "May be a second one!"
"I’m on it." JD jogged that way, taking care in turning the corner.
From further down the street, Josiah's long stride chewed up ground, bringing him quickly right behind JD.
Chris searched for other targets while backing to his downed friend. In the darkness, he couldn't tell if Buck was alive or not; Wilmington sure wasn't moving much.
Nathan dropped to his knees beside the still form.
"Took two," Chris said.
"He's breathing," Nathan replied.
Tension rolled off Chris with that simple statement. How had it gone so badly so fast?
"Help me get him to my clinic. Can't see anything down here."
Together, they gently lifted their unconscious friend, helped by a few townspeople. Once in the clinic, Nathan set to work.
He didn't want to die. Ezra's will to live, his devotion to Self-Preservation, would not let him go gently into the long, eternal sleep, so a half-baked, desperate plan formed while he felt himself begin to slide off his horse's back. He didn’t know if he’d have the strength to do what he needed to or if he’d be successful, handicapped as he was, but he had to try. Under the illusion of a lay about, he kept himself in shape with a certain amount of strength and agility that he managed to amaze his friends with from time to time. Although they did not think jumping on an armored coach full of gunman, and then jumping off and rolling free of it, as it exploded was terribly smart at the time. This might not be either, but what did he have to lose that he wasn’t going to anyway?
Just as he felt he was about to lose contact with his mount, he took and held a deep breath. Bringing his legs up, he placed his feet on his horse’s back. Before it moved off totally from under him, he used his mount as a boost and flipped his legs up. He felt the rope snap tighter around his neck, as his legs made contact with the rope above him. Not a religious man, he called on any supreme beings he could, as the rope began cutting off his air and digging deeper into his neck. He held onto the deep lungful of air and concentrated.
Miraculously, he got his leg wrapped around the rope. Feeling the rough hemp pass by his bound hands, and grimacing at the strain on his arms, he managed to grab it also. Then Ezra used his sore, battered, and traumatized muscles to pull him up a bit, and ease the noose around his neck. Hanging upside down in a strange contortion that for the moment saved his life, Ezra barely held back the laugh he wanted to explode. Twisting his body, and ignoring the all-encompassing pain, he gained a bit more leverage and slack in the rope. For an exalted moment in relief, he thought he might have to grace Josiah’s church with his presence in thanks, but then sobered and thought what had he really gained.
For the moment, he could draw in small, painful breaths. His aerobatics did not save him from further injury, and where did it really leave him? Hanging upside down. The blood rushing to his head increased the already pounding headache, and aggravated the dizziness and nausea. The strain on his already abused muscles was excruciating, causing him to weaken quickly. He guessed only the adrenaline coursing through his system was keeping him aloft. At best, he figured he bought him a few more moments to make his peace with those supreme beings. As he felt his limbs begin to shake with fatigue and the adrenaline wore off, he tried to deduce the odds on how long he could maintain his hold. The Southerner wondered if the additional pain of prolonging the inevitable was worth the perceived profit.
Lady Luck solved that dilemma.
The blow caught him unawares, pain bringing him forcefully out of his slumber. No one could have snuck up on him; his horse would have alerted him, or he would have heard something. Unless they managed to silence his horse, and approach him extremely quietly. Reflexively, his left fist flew out first, and his right hand dropped to his gun.
That was as far as he got. A boot connected with his chin, snapping his mouth closed, and driving his head back. Right into a hard object connecting on a different angle with his temple. Vin blacked out.
JD ran into the clinic. "Chris!" He stopped when he saw the patient in the midst of a surgery. "Oh, God." His legs wobbled slightly.
Chris steered him out, pushing him against the rail and holding him up while the younger man breathed in and out. "Nathan said it's not too bad. More blood than wound. You catch anyone?"
"At the alley. Buck?"
"Nathan's doing his best." Chris propelled JD down the stairs, knowing Nathan didn’t need them underfoot at the moment. "The man say anything?"
"Um…no. He's dying, though. Asked Josiah for the preacher. 'Siah's praying with him."
When they arrived, Josiah was beside the man.
"Who hired you?" Chris kneeled down to look the stranger in the eye.
Even gasping for breath the man spat at him. "Got nothin' ta say."
"Why Buck?" Chris ignored the bloody spittle, firing a hard glare at the man. "You want forgiveness from God, you give information."
Coughing several times, the man's entire body rocked with pain, and more blood seeped out of his mouth. "Reckon I want that man to pay in pain. You do that?"
Chris gave him a smile filled with the promise of agony. "Give me the name, and I'll see he suffers. No one hurts me and mine."
"Titus T. Tiberius."
Larabee saw JD knew who he meant, so he didn't press any further. "What's your name for a proper burial?"
"We'll see to it."
The man nodded weakly and satisfied he would have his revenge, he died.
Chris pushed himself up. "We've got work. Ezra's been injured somehow and taken. Vin's waiting for us on the trail. Josiah, take care of him.” Larabee nodded toward the body as he grabbed a shaken JD by the arm and started walking toward the saloon. “Now JD, tell me what you know about Titus T. Tiberius.”
Lady Luck was a fickle bitch, Ezra decided. He couldn't see himself, but he was sure he was a sight, and not a gentlemanly one to be sure. He heard the branch holding his rope crack and felt the tremor through the rope that he was sure was not caused by his own trembling limbs. Here he managed to contort himself into a position where he would not hang to death, inflicting fresh wounds and pain on his body, and now those supreme beings were throwing another impossible situation at him. All he could do was wait to fall on his head. At least he hoped that's all he would do, the fall could probably snap his neck, too. Saved from a hanging death to a falling death, which death was better? Maybe if he let go and swung down, at least the death might be quick. Falling he would probably only add more injuries and die slowly. His luck lately, he'd swing down and hang. . .slowly. Then just before he died, he would fall, adding a final jolt of pain before his life passed.
The absurdity of his thoughts - choosing a more dignified death between hanging or falling on his face and breaking his neck – struck him, making him laugh around the horrible gag with gallows humor. Gallows humor – what a dreadful pun – and he laughed harder, nearly choking because of that disgusting gag. He felt himself slip a bit and got himself under control, before he found his answer quicker than he wanted.
Dear Lord, he must be a sight, hanging there without clothes, thighs and feet clamped on a rope, hands in a tight grip, his head heading for the ground, and all the blood rushing to his brains. He was bruised, battered, gagged, tied, and now he was going to die. Most undignified. He was assaulted by a brief flash of his mother's face. She would be appalled, after all appearances are everything. As he felt himself slip a bit more, he wondered sadly if she'd be more upset that he was dead or how he died. The morbid thought made him laugh silently as he desperately tried to hang on. Hang on. . . oh lord!
He was still laughing internally when the branch broke.
Eyes opened to the beginning break of day, but there were two horizons, and both were wavy and distorted. His teeth ached, his tongue felt double its size, and he tasted blood. He tried to push himself up, discovering his hands and feet bound, then staked spread-eagled and shirtless to the ground. This was not good.
He was alone, miles from town, and a quick, painful glance showed he was minus his horse, weapons, and supplies. Whoever did this wanted him to suffer, and would probably come back to get his corpse, or inflict more pain if he lived. Determined not to give satisfaction either way, Vin worked on freeing himself from his bonds.
While Nathan worked, Chris became every inch of the bad element his reputation claimed he was. He, JD, and Josiah rounded up all the men Chris recognized as guns for hire, and a few that just struck the gunslinger as wrong. Then Larabee questioned them.
Out of respect for the townsfolk, his interrogations occurred in the jail. His respect ended there; fists flew, threats of pain were issued, and curses rang while he beat information out of them if he had to. JD kept him from causing permanent damage, probably so they wouldn't wind up in a cell themselves and unable to help Buck.
All the answers led back to one man – Titus T. Tiberius. There had been word spread around about easy work to be had for high pay, bringing several unsavory characters to the area. Once here, they were approached by Titus T. Tiberius, who paid them well to keep an eye on the seven peacekeepers. These men had not received any further instructions. To a man, they knew nothing about who took Ezra.
With the last interview done, and all the men having stern warnings to be gone immediately, Chris strode to the saloon. He downed a shot, followed by asking Inez if she could fill their canteens with water, one each with coffee, and provide them some staples for their ride. The gunslinger sent JD to the stable to saddle the horses. Vin needed them, Ezra was missing, and that took priority. Chris thought when they were all together again they would take care of one Titus T. Tiberius.
Leaving Inez, he strode to the clinic, wanting to know but dreading the news just the same on how Wilmington was faring.
Nathan's tired face cracked a smile at seeing him. "He's doing good."
Larabee slumped against the closed door. His exertions during the night gave him an outlet for his fears about losing Buck. All at once, a wave of exhaustion swept over him, leaving him holding onto the door to keep his feet.
"I'd tell you to sit down, but I won't waste my breath." Nathan changed the compress on Buck's forehead, where a large knot showed his impact with the wall. "One was shallow and small caliber. A graze. The other one went into his thigh and lodged in the muscle. Got it out without a problem. Figure he uses his thighs often enough that the muscle prevented it from going through."
Chris smirked. "Riding horses for years."
The two men exchanged a glance, and then laughed.
"Not yet. Understand we have more trouble."
"Yeah. Mr. Plater rode to tell us Vin sent him because Ezra's been hurt somehow and taken. Vin's waiting for us."
"All right. Give me a minute to pack a bag."
Chris tilted his head, and surprise colored his tone. "You don't need to stay with Buck?"
"Buck's going to be fine. Josiah knows what to do – right now it's just keeping the wounds clean and watching for fever. That damn fool Ezra ain't got the strength Buck does right now. He's still recovering, and he'll need me more."
A wry grin covered Larabee's lips. "Figure you're right. When you're ready, we ride." Larabee left to find Josiah.
Sending the preacher to the clinic, Chris went to unsaddle Josiah's horse, and JD helped him saddle Nathan's. Before the bottom of the sun cleared the edge of the horizon, the three men were riding hard for the Plater homestead, and from there to find Vin.
Small fingers tickled his face. Opening, or trying to open his eyes, Ezra found himself in darkness. Funny he always thought heaven or hell would be brighter than this. Heaven from an angelic glow and hell from the fires of damnation. It took a moment for him to remember the situation. His aching head was spinning, but he felt solid ground beneath him, and the pain in his throat and chest as he tried to draw a deeper breath assured he was alive. He knew for certain he was no longer hanging, and he was pretty sure he was alive.
The tickling on his face continued. What was that? Blindfolded, hands tied, gagged, and something heavy was pressing him into the ground. Trying to move, to free some part of his body, was painful. The crawling sensation over his chafed skin was annoying though, and now it was stinging. Insects, bugs! A shudder ran through his body and he struggled to free himself in earnest.
Oh, the irony.
To defeat death by hanging by an act of will, then to cheat it again by not breaking his neck, only to be covered in the small creatures. He pressed his lips as tight as he could around the gag; he was not going to allow them into his mouth if possible. For once he was somewhat thankful for the blindfold, but just in case he kept his eyes closed, preferring to keep his sight instead of letting them dig at his eyeballs.
The solid weight pressing down against his back he guessed was the branch that he had been dangling from. The rope was still around his neck, and it was tight, but he could breathe. What was that? How dare it!
Ezra blew out all the air in his lungs to expel the ant trying to enter his nose. He tried to shake his head to dislodge more, but something caught on the blindfold. Turning his head he tugged hard, he wasn't free but whatever it caught on did him a service. The blinder moved, a bit more and it was off. He blinked as the bright light assaulted his eyes. Slowing blinking his eyes open, he took his first look at his predicament.
Even the slowly rising sun didn't cheer his spirits; now he would be sunburned on his back while pinned under a branch, tied, and gagged. Where were his friends? Why hadn't they found him yet? After the beating and a crazy ride all over creation, he'd been left here. Vin was a good tracker, and he didn't meet him when scheduled. The tracker should have come after him.
A sarcastic little voice in the back of his mind started talking to him, making him question everything. It suspiciously sounded like Mother.
Where are your friends, Ezra? Just as those others left you here to die, your friends didn't even come for you.
They'll come, he told himself. He just needed to hang on for a little while. Hang on…he nearly groaned at his own pun.
A sound caught his attention. There, in front of him, a short distance away, a carrion bird landed and eyed him.
The harbinger of death, it was waiting for him to stop moving to eat him. It moved closer, and he tried to pull back. He couldn't move much; the branch was heavy and pinned his lower half down, but he wiggled a bit.
The bird stared at him, and then walked to his side. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw the beak stretch toward him.
He recognized that voice. Where did he know it from? Betraying nothing, he remained still, eyes closed, his hands still bound and staked, along with his feet. Whoever did this knew that to wet leather prior to tying it, so it only tightened it as it dried.
"He alive?" the voice asked.
A boot landed in his midsection, and he flinched.
"Bring him along. We’ll wait to part company when we reach the other one."
Where did he know that voice? He tried to shift his head to glance, get a better look, but that was ineffective. A boot connected with his temple, and he went fighting into the darkness again.
"We're coming, boys," Chris said, setting a faster pace. Something in his gut told him that things were very wrong, and he needed to hurry.
A large equine hoof landed near his side. Ezra squinted up and eyed the large shape now standing between him and the carrion bird. His friend had returned, and was now standing guard. But for how long? His head dropped back down, his eyes closed as the pain coursing through him overrode any thought of caring.
The carrion bird took flight, heading away while it still had its life.
He felt a tongue lick his body once, and the sensations of being chewed on stopped momentarily. But it didn't help too much, nor did the tongue repeat the action. Ezra consigned himself to figuring out how to get out from under this branch without hurting himself further, especially with the rope still around his neck.
He closed his eyes again against the crawling insects, more than ants now, and wondered how the hell he would get out of this mess. It was really becoming harder to care, and slowly he faded into unconsciousness once more.
He felt fingers on his throat.
"Alive. Looks like you're always trouble, even when you're left alone."
"We don't have time for this. Our schedule's too tight," another voice replied.
Ezra recognized both voices; the sun was now fully up and warming the ground, making things more uncomfortable. Along with the continual fly bites, and the ants, and who-knew-what-else of the creepy-crawly persuasion trying to make a meal of him. Oh, how far he had fallen, and now he heard these voices, why were they here? The last vestiges of hope he clung to threatened to burn away in the sun.
His eyes opened somewhat to stare at two pairs of expensive boots.
"You did me wrong, Mr. Standish. You are an impediment to my plans, and therefore you must be eliminated. I just wanted you to have the pleasure of knowing who sent you back to the devil. Enjoy the pain, Mr. Standish. You deserve it for your many misdeeds."
I was pardoned, Ezra thought, and my friends will come. Then you will pay dearly.
"And if you still cling to the hope that your friends are coming to save you, the only one that could track you is no longer…available. Goodbye, Mr. Standish."
Both men left.
Dear Lord, Ezra thought, Vin's bounty. They discovered the bounty, and now they're going to take him to be hung, and do it legally.
Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.
In that moment, he was filled with despair, and there was no hope.
The day wore on, and Ezra started to believe it was the last one of his life. Of all his mental scenarios of how he would die, this was not one of them. He was bound, naked, overrun with insects, pinned beneath a heavy branch, gagged, thirsty, hungry, dirty, tired, horse functions on the ground near him, and carrion birds landing by him to take their meal when his horse – his true friend – finally had enough of standing there and left him.
It was not a banner day in the life and death of Ezra P. Standish.
His neck hurt, his ribs ached, most of his skin was either sunburned or bruised, and he couldn't even roll on his side to answer a call of nature, not that there was enough liquid in him to inspire that need.
Then he remembered Vin, and his own pains and hurts faded. Vin Tanner was probably one of the very few good men out here. Ezra actually gave a damn about him. For that noble spirit to be dragged to backwater Texas and hung was unacceptable. The men involved in this were going to make sure that Vin legally paid for a crime he didn't commit, and unless they were stopped, there would be no saving Vin.
He had to live to do that; his friends would have noticed both their disappearances by now. They would be out looking. It might take some time for them to find him, but he would live until then. His will squashed the nagging doubts that they wouldn't care, or that because Vin was gone they would look for Tanner first; he had to believe that they cared enough. Just because they may not completely trust him after that appalling affair with the money didn't mean they'd forget about him. He wouldn't allow himself to think that they'd say good riddance.
For all his protests to the contrary, and all for his homage to Self-Preservation, Ezra P. Standish could not allow an innocent man to die. Call it a conscience, call it idiocy, but the friendship that he shared with the tracker was one that defied all his mother's teachings. They were kindred souls, and he owed Vin the chance to be saved.
Part of him realized he was probably delirious, and that his brain had dulled from the plethora of injuries, but if he continued to make his mind function and refused to give up, then he could survive and tell whoever found him to go after Vin. Before someone hung the tracker.
It struck him as ironic that he once said he'd rather be hung than to follow a man to the outhouse, and Lady Luck nearly allowed him his wish. Capricious lady, and now he knew that hanging would have been preferable to this…ignominy, with another man's life at stake for his – Ezra's – errors.
It was his fault that Vin was now on his way to backwater, Texas. That blasted poker game which won him the property was the beginning. His gambling vice had an innocent man paying for it. He won the land; he should have made sure that no one knew where he went, nor was anyone else at risk for checking out his win. His being late – ambush notwithstanding - caused Vin to be captured.
The guilt motivated him, accompanied by the desire to see Vin survive.
All he had to do was hold on, live through today, and maybe the next one if necessary, until he was found.
He could do that.
If only these insipid insects would stop trying to crawl into every crack and crevice. When he was rescued, he required at least one lye bath just to feel clean again.
Chris Larabee was in a foul mood. Not only was it taking entirely too long to catch up to Vin, but they'd passed the Plater homestead a while ago. They hadn't seen any sign of the tracker since. His path was easy to follow, but then it stopped suddenly, and split off in five different directions. Two out of the five had been checked with dead-end results. The military man in Chris recognized and respected the work of the men who hid the trails, but the friend of Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish would have just as cheerfully put a bullet in them to get some answers.
"Three left," Nathan said, a touch of weariness in his tone.
"Straight," Chris ordered. He led his horse where there were no matching tracks ahead of them.
"Why?" JD asked. "We still have three more to go."
"We've been set up, JD," Chris told him. "Old military trick – set several trails, and by the time your pursuers figure out all of them are dead ends, they'll have lost time. If they went to this much trouble, we're closer than they want us to be."
The trio rode forward, and not even an hour later they saw something in the distance. Ahead of them, the carrion birds circled over lumps on the ground to the left of the road. They approached guns drawn, ready for anything.
What they found was surprising. Their quarry, Titus T. Tiberius, lay beside a rock. He bled from the gut, his crude bandage already soaked through, and he was barely conscious. Beside him, one of the men they questioned early the night before was dead, a bullet having splattered his head.
"Help me," Titus T. Tiberius moaned.
Nathan dismounted, quickly checking the wound. He said nothing, but his expression told them all that it was a fatal wound. "I'm sorry."
The injured man closed his eyes briefly. "Figured I was dying. Help me get some revenge."
"Who shot you?" Chris asked. His expression didn't soften much, knowing this man caused his own pain, but Larabee took no pleasure in the slow and agonizing death a gut shot brought.
JD stood sentry, tending the horses and watching.
"Man came to me, said he'd heard about my humiliation. Did I want to get some revenge, he asked me. Hell, yes, I did." Titus T. Tiberius coughed, a small dribble of blood running down from the corner of his mouth. "Ain't gonna be much longer, am I?"
Nathan sadly shook his head.
"Anything you can do to make this easier for him?" Larabee gave the healer a significant look.
"Whiskey, or laudanum."
"Whiskey," Titus decided. "Help me finish this."
The dark bottle passed to the grateful, dying man. After a couple painful swallows, his eyes drifted shut.
"Hey!" Chris said.
"Sorry." Titus T. Tiberius forced himself awake. Two shaky breaths later he said, "I tell him I'm in, what's the ante? He wants to cause problems for the seven men guarding that town – specifically the tracker, you, the gambler, and the scoundrel. Matched my needs, figured what the hell." His voice softened, making them lean closer to listen. "I paid men to watch you, and then I shot at the scoundrel. Got away, but my benefactor and his friends met us today on the road. Seems they were watchin' me watch you." The voice faded and cracked, dry heat and his wound seeping the strength from Titus T. Tiberius.
Taking a shaky, pain-filled breath, Titus continued, "Got double crossed. Once I did what he wanted, said I wasn't any more use to him, and they had the other two. Double hanging, one legal."
Fury built in Chris; they'd been set up, and they never saw it coming. Two hangings wasn't good – the legal one could only be Vin's bounty, and the other one for Ezra.
Titus coughed hard, and then slumped back to the ground. "They don't know I know." He laughed, a pathetic sound more like an outpouring of pain than amusement.
Larabee leaned down beside the dying man. "Tell me."
Titus T. Tiberius whispered into the gunslinger's ear, and then died.
Red hot rage poured through Chris Larabee's veins, feeding the already churning emotions. He stood, grabbed a spare blanket, and covered the corpses. "Ride now. We're running out of time."
"Who is it?" JD asked.
Vin came to consciousness again; this time it was twice as painful. A saddle horn jammed into his bare ribs, his legs and hands were still bound, yet someone had tied them together so they hung under his horse, and every part of his body hurt.
He didn't recognize the trail, but he had a pretty good idea where he was going. Tascosa, Texas, and to his hanging. There wouldn't be any friends to help him clear his name this time. The tracker used the pain to focus his mind, figure out a way to escape. So far, nothing was coming to him, but he finally placed the voice he'd heard earlier. It amazed him that he didn't think of it sooner, and Vin knew it spelled disaster for everyone else that called themselves a peacekeeper in that town. There was more trouble brewing, and he needed to be free to stop it.
Deciding to play peaceable until they watered the horses, or they stopped for the night, he conserved his energy, using his mind to distract him from his physical pain. The time would come, and he would be ready. Until then, he would wait.
"Where are we going?" Nathan asked. "You know where to find them?"
"I have a pretty good idea." Grimly, Chris urged his horse forward. He didn't want to be right, and he didn't know what he would find, but there was only one place that he could think of to conduct a good hanging without interruption.
"Son of a bitch!" Buck Wilmington yelled. "Damn, that hurt."
"Shouldn't do that then." Strong hands shoved him down.
"I'm not sitting here with the town unprotected."
"Help me outside. I can sit on the balcony and watch." He turned pleading eyes on his keeper.
"Something's brewing, and you need me watching."
Faced with that statement and the intense expression, Buck was allowed to sit outside in a chair, his leg propped up, and his rifle cradled in his arms. He ignored the pain of rising too soon from the sickbed, keeping his attention on the town.
Ezra felt his will wavering. The slow passage of time drew out, prolonging each painful second. Exhaustion pulled at him, sapping his already depleted reserves, and giving up for good continually gained appeal.
Something deep within him, however, clung tenaciously to consciousness. That most elusive of qualities that he never truly believed in, hope, had lay hidden in his heart, down where he never knew it existed or saw it sneak in, bloomed. It nourished him and kept him from succumbing.
In the midst of despair, there was hope.
Chris saw the tracks approaching the rise, and he squinted hard in that direction. The merciless sun outlined what looked like a horse by the old, weathered tree, and was one of the branches missing? The three men slowly approached with weapons drawn.
It was a horse – Ezra's – who whickered a greeting.
He must be dreaming. His horse made a noise like the beast recognized someone. Not really able to move, Ezra shifted his gaze and risked his vision to open his eyes and stare. A pair of boots and spurs – very familiar ones – stood near him. He felt moisture enter his eyes.
"Ezra!" Chris yelled.
Nathan dove down and quickly cut the rope for the noose from the branch, leaving it still around his neck, but not attached to the weight on his back. "Try not to move him too much."
Chris and JD stood at either end of the branch, slowly lifting it and walking off Ezra's body, dropping it not too far from the base of the tree.
"What do you need?"
"No broken bones, but I need to get all these bugs off him and out of the wounds." The healer removed the gag.
Ezra tried to say thank you, he felt his lips move; but they cracked and that hurt. He stopped moving them.
"Don't talk, Ezra," Nathan admonished. "You're dehydrated."
Having been 'rescued', his natural sarcasm floated to the surface. His attempt at an eye roll eloquently expressed his opinion of that obvious statement.
Nathan grinned in response. "I'm not cutting any of your bonds off because they've dug into the skin. I want them clean first."
I shall never be clean again, Ezra thought, staying silent because his mouth and throat hurt.
"Can we move him to the stream?" Chris asked.
"I don't want to, but the ties need to be wet to be cut off, and I think it would hurt less if we did it there."
Ezra tilted his head to listen.
Working together, they gently carried their injured comrade to the nearby stream.
Chris and Nathan waded in, Larabee holding onto the battered body. JD stood guard, running and fetching when they needed it, but his attention split between his friends and their surroundings.
It took almost half an hour to remove just the rope because of how deep it cut into Ezra's neck. Even though Ezra had not hung per se, he still bore the abrasions with strands of hemp agitating it, along with the bugs that had feasted off the open wounds.
Forty-five minutes after that, the rest of the insects were gone, a chore that neither Chris nor Nathan relished. Fortunately, the flies had not laid eggs yet, and there were no maggots. Before they started, they'd let Ezra drink a little, and then a little more after the rope was gone.
It was a strange sensation for Ezra to be held like a child in Larabee's strong arms, and to hear the soft words of encouragement from the normally stoic man. The grip never wavered, never lessened, and tightened when the pain was intense. He wouldn't admit it, but it felt incredibly good to be comforted this way. There was no shame in his nakedness, and he felt no less of a man, but the support was overwhelming.
They let him drink again at the end of it from their canteens, and then carried him to rest on a blanket. His throat had finally stopped aching, and his lips were now moist enough to speak.
"Thank you," he said softly.
"Hang in there, Ezra. We're going to get you fixed up," Nathan told him.
"I have...no doubt. Vin…needs…help." He heard his voice crack and break repeatedly.
"We know. We're going to take care of you first, and then go after Vin. Long way to Tascosa," Chris said.
Something in Ezra's heart warmed at the thought that they were putting his well-being first, and then going after the tracker. He couldn't allow it, though. He was safe; Vin was not. "Nathan…take…me. You…two…get…Vin."
"You're pretty banged up, Ezra. Can't leave you."
Clearly undecided, Chris stared at Nathan. "What do you think?"
"I really don't want to move him, but I have more supplies in town to fix him up."
"Go," Ezra hissed, this time with more volume and feeling. "I'll…ride." Any ground he gained was lost, if Larabee's expression was any indication.
"We're taking you back to town, and that's final."
"Yeah, where you live," Nathan told him.
"Planned…to…get…us…separated." Ezra moaned. "Town unprotected?" Now that he was being cared for and safe, exhaustion claimed its due. His body craved sleep; that need pulled hard at him.
"Hell," Chris muttered. "Perfect time to go after the town."
"No one there?" Green eyes tried to widen, but the injuries protested.
"Quit moving," Nathan ordered. "This might sting." He poured whiskey in the wounds.
Several expletives rolled through Ezra's brain, along with pain from places he didn't know he was hurt. He tried moving away from it, only to find himself stopped by Chris.
There was nothing easy about it – this hurt. To distract himself from the pain, he ground out, "Know who did this." His teeth ached from gritting them.
Chris replied with a name as a question.
Startled, Ezra stared, ignoring the flaming agony of the whiskey cleaning his wounds.
"Yeah, I know. Nathan, we need to head back."
The healer sighed while he finished drying the now cleansed wounds. "Let me bandage and then we'll ride."
"Pardon…lack of joy," Ezra remarked.
Vin knew the time neared to try and free himself. He couldn't depend on his friends to free him, but it was a comforting thought that they would try if – when – they found out he was missing.
It took a good bit of argument, much cursing, and protests from Ezra, but they finally gave up on the litter idea when Ezra explained that his appearance as not so injured would be beneficial to their cause. He was wrapped in bandages beneath a spare set of Larabee's clothes. His own saddlebags are missing, so he made do. They were larger and longer, but that was better to not abrade the bandages. JD's would have fit size-wise, but Nathan decreed nothing should constrict beyond the wrappings covering the wounds.
They set off for town, Ezra doubled with Chris, the only concession they wrangled out of the gambler. He believed he could ride his own mount bareback and rein-free, but Chris refused to take that risk. A short time into the ride, they fell into a pattern. JD scouted ahead, Nathan covering their backs, and the pair in the middle.
No one said much, but Chris finally broke the silence, his voice soft and low. "Ezra?"
"Yes?" His voice sounded weak to his own ears, and it still bothered him they wouldn't let him ride his horse. He understood the reasoning, but he didn't like it. Either he agreed, or he knew Nathan would make a litter. That was too humiliating. He cleared his throat again. "Yes?" There – his voice sounded stronger.
"Glad you made it."
Four simple words spoken softly and directly from the heart suffused Ezra with a sense of belonging. It touched him deeply, and more than he wanted to admit, that Chris cared enough to come after him. That Larabee held him so firmly and almost tenderly during his cleansing, and put his welfare so high in his list of priorities, caused an unfamiliar lump in his throat. There was only one response. "Thank you."
No more words were exchanged for a few minutes.
Ezra knew what had to be done. "Chris?"
"Got get Vin."
"Buck's hurt too, and Josiah's watching the town. We're shorthanded."
Larabee chuckled. "That sums it up."
"Send me with Nathan."
Ezra took a calculated risk. "Does Vin mean that little to you?"
"Ezra." The tone hardened in response to the question.
"I will survive my ride. Will Vin?" Willing his battered throat muscles to give strength to his voice, Ezra made his argument. "Must Vin be alive when he reaches Tascosa? We both know he'll try to escape. Will he survive that?"
"You know I’m right," Ezra pressed. His conscience, such that it was, continued reminding him that his will to live was tied to getting Vin help. Now that he was safe – not comfortable, but safe – he owed a debt to his tracker friend.
"Yeah?" The healer rode up.
"Take Ezra to town. JD, we're going after Vin."
They finally stopped for water. No thought was given to Vin's comfort. He was forced to stay on the horse, and nothing was offered to him. He slipped the knife he wore strapped to his upper thigh down toward his boot, and caught it with one hand. That pressed all the air out of his lungs to do that, but having the knife was worth it. The weapon easily sliced the bonds. Could he have done this earlier? Yes, but then he wouldn't have them as tired and distracted by their own needs as they are now. Once free of the bonds, he lowered himself to the ground, released the reins from the ground tie, and swung up onto the horse. He took off on an erratic course away from the bounty hunters.
His horse could not outrun the bullets, and they were fast and furious in Vin's direction. One knocked his hat off, while the other embedded in his backside. He shouldn't have been riding with that part of him so far up in the saddle, but he wasn't going to stop.
Vin heard the sounds of pursuit behind him, and the bullets continued to fly. His luck ran out, the last one hitting his arm. He lost feeling in that arm, tried to control his horse with his knees, but it was no use. His control slipped, and the horse slowed. The bounty hunters caught up to him then.
They made him pay for his escape with a beating and leaving his wounds untreated. This time he was bound harder, and stripped of all weapons. He wasn't sure how he was going to escape, but he was determined to try.
Nathan arrived in town with Ezra, and immediately Josiah was there to help them. They got the gambler to the clinic, Buck earning a glare from Nathan for his guard duty, but the healer had more important problems.
Ezra's world was a misery of pain over the next couple hours because of the intense cleaning and dressing that Nathan did to him. The lye soap bath was one of the more unpleasant aspects, one he tried objecting to, but only earned a strong hand holding him down.
He would never admit that it did wonders for him to be scoured clean, although the soap did sting when it accidentally dripped into wounds. No longer feeling filthy and dirty lulled him into a sense of security, and he dozed off during treatment. When he next awoke, it was dark in the room. He didn't see Nathan anywhere.
It was his chance. Nathan's clinic bed was fine, but it wasn't a feather bed like his own. If he were going to recuperate, he would do it in comfort. The trick would be walking from here to there without being seen. He ordered his mind to do this in a series of steps like he would run any con.
Step one was to get his body upright. That was a challenge. Taking a deep breath, then regretting that and blowing it out in short gasps, he was reminded that his ribs had suffered. It almost felt like a corset with as tight as Nathan made the wrapping for support. Using brief, shallow breaths, he pulled himself to a sitting position.
Almost immediately, parts of him that had been abused over the past few days screamed in protest. His skin particularly did not like the change in venue, the sunburn forcing tight skin to twist almost painfully.
Concentrate, Ezra, concentrate, he told himself. Banishing the pain, he swiveled his head to look for clothes. There – bless Nathan's heart. The healer brought some of Ezra's clothes over to prevent him from walking around naked. He probably knew Ezra would if given half a chance. If a man walked through town wearing a tablecloth, why should clothes be necessary? Of course, his body was hideous to look at, and Ezra did not need to see under the bandages to know how badly he was hurt. Perhaps when he was more like David or Adonis he might consider it, but right now, absolutely not.
It took some effort to make his feet cooperate with his will. He barely managed to get to the clothes before his legs gave out. His butt landed hard on the floor, and he whimpered.
Flames consumed his backside, raw and tender from the sunburn. He couldn't focus on anything but the pain.
"Ez?" Buck opened the clinic door. "Aw, Ez." Limping, the mustached rogue hobbled over to the downed gambler.
"Leave me alone," Ezra rasped.
"Nope. Come on." Buck offered a hand from his good side, bracing off his good leg.
Green eyes peered up at his friend. "I can do it myself."
"You're doing a bang-up job of it already. Take a helping hand, pard."
Ezra closed his eyes. "My friend, I find myself the recipient of such kindness, yet I cannot further injure you to my betterment. Please, sit down."
"Only if you get back in the bed."
"Blackmail, Mr. Wilmington."
"Hell, Ez, we're both so screwed up we'll be lucky if we don't shoot ourselves. If you don't take care of you, I will."
Another warm rush of unfamiliar emotion flowed through Ezra, making him blink. He couldn't look up at Buck, knowing if he did that the other man would read the powerful feelings in his eyes. He swallowed, and then winced.
"My leg's hurting, Ez. You gonna get up, or am I gonna fall down?"
Bless him, Ezra thought. Buck knew the effect of his words on his friend, and covered by giving the gambler an out. Forcing himself to his feet, he stumble-fell back to the bed, almost pathetically glad to have it beneath him. The strain exhausted him.
A light brush of fingers across his shoulders told him Buck cared, and then Wilmington stretched out on the cot.
"Hell of a pair, aren't we?"
"The Ace of Spades and King of Hearts," Ezra joked.
"Yup. Now, if we're real good, Nathan might leave us alone after breakfast tomorrow. Then we can sneak away."
"Oh, I can think of a few soft beds and bodies for me, and I'm sure your own bed sounds good."
"I do believe we have an arragement."
True to Buck's prediction, Nathan left them alone after their breakfast to go get his own and check on an injury he'd bandaged the other day.
"Shall we?" Buck asked, pushing himself to his feet.
"Oh yes." Ezra got shakily to his feet. He caught the clothes Buck tossed him, along with the new gunbelt complete with weapon. "I…"
"You still work here, right?"
"Yes," Standish allowed.
"Gotta defend yourself." The gambler noticed Buck's own belt was slung over his good shoulder, not interfering with his bad leg. A rifle was cradled in his hands.
His own weapon was one that he was familiar with – it was a Remington like his own, but newer. He knew that it cost Buck some money, and gratitude overwhelmed him. "Much obliged." Dressing with care, Ezra was finally ready.
"Anytime. Now, let's get out of here." Opening the door slowly, Buck peered around. "We're good."
Taking his time, Ezra used tiny steps to go outside, and both men paused at the balcony railing.
Mary Travis was carrying a basket and coming toward the clinic steps. She looked up. "Hello, boys."
"Damn," Buck muttered. "So close."
"Aw, hay-ell," Ezra cursed. He turned his head, and that's when he saw the rifle. It was pointed out a window directly at the blond woman. Instinct took over and he reacted, pulling and firing the weapon once. The recoil against his battered body was too much, knocking him on his butt. He could see everything from his new vantage point, and his shot must have hit.
The man leaned out further and aimed on Mary, while Buck got his gun and fired several shots in succession.
A body dropped from the second floor to the awning beneath it, rolling and falling to the ground.
"Ouch," Ezra moaned. "Mary?"
"She's fine," Buck said, and promptly dropped beside him. "Hell."
Gunshots had drawn the remaining two protectors to the sounds, and they checked the man. Nathan's single headshake told them that he was dead, and Josiah walked Mary away from the scene, pushing her up the stairs with the other two.
"Watch her," the preacher called. "I'm going to search the buildings."
"You boys hurt yourselves, didn't you?" Nathan yelled.
"We have to find out he's alone, brother," Josiah told him.
"We'll be fine up here," Buck called.
"Speak for yourself," Ezra hissed.
"Ezra! Buck! You saved my life." A wry twist of her lips showed her smile. "Again." The woman joined them, helping them up and into the clinic. Several groans and minutes later, Nathan and Josiah joined them.
"Guess who it was," Nathan said.
"I find myself on pins and needles," Ezra deadpanned.
"Horace, Governor Hopewell's man."
"Study my surprise." Standish affected a shocked expression.
"My horse makes a better face," Buck told him.
"Your horse has a better face," Ezra quipped.
"You knew?" Mary asked.
"Of course. I was paid a visit by both gentlemen. I rather believe they expected me dead, and left me that way."
"So that explains it."
"Explains what?" Buck stared at Mary.
"Governor Hopewell resigned today. Said that he wanted to live his life privately because of all the changes in the Territory."
"He knows he will be a wanted man, no matter if his lackey succeeded or not." Ezra winced when he shifted positions.
"Then he'll have to be found," Mary stated simply. "When are Chris, Vin, and JD getting back? I thought they were with you."
Ezra's eyes fell, and Nathan found the floor fascinating.
"Right about now," Chris said. The door opened, admitting three very battered, dusty figures. His arms were carrying the top half of Vin Tanner, with JD holding the legs. "Ezra, can you move?"
"Most certainly." He accepted Buck's help, transferring to a corner of that man's cot.
Nathan began his examination, calling out orders to the mobile, not noticing the bloody knuckles or black eye Chris sported, or the definite limp JD tried to hide.
"It's not good, but it's not too bad," Nathan muttered, half to himself, and half to the room.
Ezra hid a smile. The healer would see the battle scars soon enough, and Standish would wager before the end of the day, he and Buck would find themselves in the beds of their choice. Governor Hopewell – ex-governor Hopewell – would be found soon enough. Things were slowly turning back to normal.
There they were, all seven of them, most sporting injuries, but there was a bond between them. Perhaps this was what he held out for – the feeling of belonging to this group. Perhaps this is why he held hope in the midst of despair.
7H7CIndex Destiny Index